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Our Opinion: Opposite paths for Wilson, Nash on immigration

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Should local authorities have a role in federal immigration enforcement?

A comparative case study will play out in Wilson and Nash counties, next-door neighbors who are employing opposite strategies in an effort to make their communities safer.

The Wilson Police Department is urging Latino victims and witnesses to call police regardless of their residency status without fear of deportation. Meanwhile, the Nash County Sheriff’s Office has inked an agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that allows deputies to function as ICE special agents.

Each approach carries potential risk and reward. Wilson wants to work with immigrants to curb crime, but a reputation for lax enforcement could bring unintended consequences. Nash County leaders say federal powers will help combat drug trafficking, but deputies who inspire fear in immigrant communities are less likely to have residents’ cooperation when they need it.

HISPANIC OUTREACH

Wilson police held a summit last week with the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina and the Eastern North Carolina Latin American Coalition as part of a continuing campaign to strengthen ties between police officers and Latino residents. Nearly a year ago, the WPD designated Capt. Keith Pendergrass as its Hispanic and Latino community liaison.

Police want U.S. citizens, green card-holders, guest workers and undocumented immigrants alike to trust Wilson officers. At a May 2017 meeting, Pendegrass explained that residents who are in the country illegally and fear deportation are less likely to report crimes to law enforcement, making perpetrators harder to catch.

“Without you, we can’t do our jobs,” Pendergrass told those in attendance.

The captain also reassured attendees that Wilson officers who ask for photo ID aren’t setting a deportation trap.

“We are not trying to report your status,” he said. “We are trying to confirm who you say you are.”

The Wilson Police Department has boosted the number of bilingual officers to ensure that police can communicate with Spanish-speaking residents who know little or no English.

IMMIGRATION AUTHORITY

In February, the Nash County Sheriff’s Office became the sixth law enforcement agency in North Carolina to sign a memorandum of agreement with ICE under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The partnership allows ICE to delegate federal immigration enforcement authority to local deputies.

Sheriff Keith Stone said the 287(g) program will help his office to crack down on violent criminals and drug smugglers who are not legal U.S. residents, but he stressed that Nash deputies won’t be rounding people up for deportation.

“I’m not interested in any immigrant who isn’t a criminal,” Stone told the Rocky Mount Telegram in January. “But it helps when we stop an illegal alien on the interstate involved in criminal activity. It helps get him out of our community.”

Sheriffs in Wake, Mecklenburg, Henderson, Cabarrus and Gaston counties have also signed on as 287(g) partners. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office was stripped of federal immigration powers in 2012 after the U.S. Department of Justice accused the agency of discriminatory policing that targeted Hispanic people.

SKEPTICS ON BOTH SIDES

Wilson police haven’t seen much controversy, but some residents have grumbled that the department’s outreach to Hispanic residents regardless of their legal status amounts to condoning lawlessness.

Nash County drew the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s ire, with policy intern Yazmin Garcia Rio blasting the sheriff’s office in a March 20 website post headlined “Another North Carolina county joins Trump’s deportation force.”

Neither community wants to give the appearance of being too extreme. Wilson hasn’t sought a sanctuary city designation or announced an intent to hide undocumented immigrants from federal agents. Nash County doesn’t seem inclined to stop every Hispanic resident and demand proof of citizenship or immigration papers.

Perhaps a before-and-after comparison study of crime rates several years down the road will show us which community’s approach to thorny immigration issues is the best solution.

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