By Taylor Sisk
The occasional derisive grunt and a word or two of protest here and there from the gallery notwithstanding, Chatham County residents and a few of their neighbors addressed immigration issues in generally calm and respectful tones Monday night.
The occasion was a public input session on a newly proposed resolution in support of cooperation with federal immigration officials. The session was held at the outset of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners regular meeting.
The resolution, if passed by the board, would repeal a resolution the previous board adopted in January 2009. That resolution declared the commissionersâ€™ opposition to participation in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) program, which provides money to local law-enforcement agencies to help identify illegal immigrants and process them for deportation.
The 2009 resolution states that the board of commissioners â€œstands in strong opposition to any local governmental agency contracting with ICE for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws.â€
The resolution now under consideration asserts that the previous one â€œinadvertently caused confusion within our community concerning the status of Chatham County as a â€˜sanctuary countyâ€™â€ and that the county â€œsupports the cooperation of local law enforcement with all Federal and State agencies.â€
The board is scheduled to vote on the resolution at its next meeting, on June 6.
A county debates
The ICE resolutions have served as focal points in a sometimes-contentious countywide debate on immigration. Chatham County has seen a sharp increase in the number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, from Latin American countries in the past decade or so, and for the most part the integration of the new arrivals into the community has gone well.
Chatham County today has one of the largest Latino populations in the state.
But there are those who believe, as resident Paul Price put it in addressing the board Monday night, that â€œillegal is illegal. It cannot and should not be shaded in another color.â€ Those who are here illegally, shouldnâ€™t be, he said.
Twenty people spoke about the proposed resolution, 16 against and four in favor. Most speakers were Chatham residents.
Heather Johnson of the organization Chatham Conservative Voice questioned the motivations of those who supported the first resolution and oppose the proposed one.
â€œWhat was the purpose of the original ICE resolution?â€ Johnson asked. â€œWas it to address a critical need in the county? Or was it to make a statement on a national issue?â€
At the time the first resolution was passed, Johnson said, there was no apparent interest in instituting the 287(g) program in Chatham County, given that participation would require the construction of a new jail.
Johnson cited Marty Rosenbluth of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice as being among a group of agitators who are trying to make Chatham County a battleground for immigration policy.
â€œAre the people here today speaking out against the new proposal really because theyâ€™re interested in whatâ€™s good for Chatham County,â€ Johnson asked, â€œor because they see the potential for Chatham to be a test case on a national level?â€
Johnson pointed out that Rosenbluth has been invited to the White House a number of times to speak on 287(g).
â€œI would question if the good of our citizens is really whatâ€™s at hand here,â€ Johnson said.
Rosenbluth came to the podium immediately after Johnson and pointed out that he had previously lived in Pittsboro and knew the community well. He then took ICE to task for its Secure Communities, or S-Comm, program. While the Chatham County Sheriffâ€™s Department isnâ€™t participating in the 287(g) program, it is cooperating with S-Comm.
Under S-Comm, fingerprints of individuals arrested by local law enforcement are automatically forwarded to ICE, regardless of the alleged charge. If the fingerprints match those of a person suspected of an immigration violation, the arrested person is detained.
Rosenbluth said that S-Comm was presented to communities as a means of apprehending the most dangerous felons. But according to ICEâ€™s own statistics, he said, of the 95,000 people who have been deported under the program so far, 27,000 fit into the â€œnoncriminalâ€ category.
More than 21,000 of those deported had merely crossed the border without permission or overstayed their visas, Rosenbluth said.
No one illegal
Several speakers voiced their support for legal immigrants in Chatham County, but echoed Priceâ€™s belief that â€œillegal is illegal.â€
Ilana Dubester disagreed.
â€œI believe that no human being is illegal,â€ Dubester told the commissioners.
She challenged the assertion that Chatham County is considered a sanctuary, describing that as a notion that has been advanced exclusively through conservative channels.
â€œI urge you to withdraw this resolution,â€ Dubester said, â€œand let us work together for a truly safe community for all Chathamâ€™s inhabitants.â€