Since he was appointed Mecklenburg County sheriff in February, Chipp Bailey has walked a tight line, trying to forge relationships with immigrant communities while continuing a program many within those communities find repugnant.
"I know that most of the immigrant community, especially those who are undocumented, don't trust me," Bailey acknowledged last week at Central Piedmont Community College while explaining why he meets regularly with immigrant churchgoers. "... But they do, generally speaking, trust the faith community."
Bailey, who took office after Sheriff Jim Pendergraph took a federal job, played a significant role in the Mecklenburg County jail's implementation of the 287(g) program.
The program, which gives local law enforcement means to enforce federal immigration laws, continues to worry Latino immigrant communities. Jess George, associate director of the Latin American Coalition, contends 287(g) was sold as a way of getting serious criminals out of the country; instead, the program has hurt hard-working families whose members were arrested for offenses such as driving without a license. "These are moms. These are dads who are the sole breadwinners," she said.
Pendergraph had asked Bailey, then chief deputy, to investigate 287(g) after he learned of the program from a conversation with a California sheriff. The sheriff's office had noticed a "dramatic increase" in the number of foreign nationals coming into the jail in late 2005. Bailey has continued the program, one that his opponent in the sheriff's race, Nick Mackey, said he would end.
Speaking at CPCC last week, Bailey emphasized that 287(g) has helped the sheriff's office. The first person the sheriff's office ran through the system in April 2006 was wanted in two states for charges including murder. "We figured we were onto something," Bailey said.
"The simple fact is, if an immigrant -- legal or illegal or a citizen, for that matter -- does not want to come into contact with us at the Mecklenburg County jail, don't break the law. It's really that simple ... This is what I stress to everybody: The Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office does not go out looking for undocumented immigrants," Bailey said.
Since that first suspect's name was entered in the system, the office has encountered 8,441 foreign nationals. About 60 percent, or 5,119 people, have been found not to be here legally and placed in removal proceedings. That means that many people checked through the system are, in fact, here legally, said Rafael Prieto, editor and publisher of Mi Gente, a Spanish-language newsweekly. Prieto, an outspoken critic of 287(g), nevertheless said Bailey's relationship with Latino communities is much better than his predecessor's. "He has done a very good job to try to reach out to the community, not only with faith communities but with journalists," Prieto said. "He has more heart, I believe."
German De Castro, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Hispanic Democrats, worries Latinos are being unfairly profiled and that 287(g) uses law enforcement time and money that should be used to target serious criminals. Still, he said, Bailey is a "great person" who has made some "nice gestures."
Said Prieto: "The negative thing is that he has the power to cancel the 287(g). He understands the problems, but he doesn't want to cancel it for political reasons. It's not popular to care."
Bailey said he knows program's unintended consequences. "I'm fully aware of the impact on families; I'm fully aware of the impact on children, and I don't know what I can do about that from the standpoint of being a law enforcement official. A lot of it is about choices," he told the CPCC audience. "When someone choose, for whatever reason ... to come to this country undocumented, then they decide to break the law on top of that, then that is about choices."
George believes Bailey is doing the best he can with a program he inherited that would be "politically untenable" to disband. "I feel like 287(g) is treated ... as kind of a necessary evil until our federal government can get their acts together and create a widespread immigration reform program."