By Alissa Ellis
Whether it’s Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, or Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Trump administration has a real knack for empowering and absolving people who push discriminatory law enforcement and immigration policy. Now there’s another name to add to that list: Sheriff Terry Johnson of Alamance County in North Carolina. Six years after the federal government severed ties with Sheriff Johnson for his office’s discriminatory policing of Latinx residents, Uncle Sam and the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office are partners once again.
In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against Sheriff Johnson, which sprang from the department’s two-year investigation into his office. In its complaint, the Justice Department alleged a widespread pattern of racial profiling that systematically and unlawfully targeted Latinx residents for investigation, traffic stops, arrests, and seizures since at least 2007. Witnesses even told federal investigators that Johnson in 2007 yelled “bring me some Mexicans” while pounding his fists on a table during a staff meeting.
Although a federal judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit filed against Sheriff Johnson, the office’s egregious civil rights abuses were exposed. In response, Immigration and Customs Enforcement terminated its 287(g) agreement — a program that authorizes local deputies to perform functions of federal immigration agents — with Johnson and stripped him and his deputies of the authority to investigate potential immigration violations by individuals detained in the county jail.
But that was then and this is now.
Last week, the county’s commissioners approved Sheriff Johnson’s request for a $2.8 million budget increase for staffing and facility upgrades at the county detention facility to hold immigrants for ICE. Under the renewed partnership, the same sheriff who ICE terminated its relationship with in 2012 for discriminatory policing will once again detain immigrants — including those seeking asylum — and be reimbursed for it with federal funds. In Trump’s America, law enforcement officials who abuse their authority aren’t investigated, or at least shunned, but rewarded with taxpayer money.
The potential for abuse and the violation of immigrant and Latinx rights in Alamance County is terrifying and unacceptable, particularly when Johnson used fearmongering and false, racist statements about immigrant populations to get the money. During the meeting on the budgetary request, Sheriff Johnson told the county’s board of commissioners that “criminal illegal immigrants” are “actually raping our citizens in many, many ways.”
The renewed partnership between ICE and Sheriff Johnson once again illuminates the civil rights disasters that occur when local law enforcement partners with the federal government to do federal immigration enforcement. Such agreements can frighten community members from reporting crimes and from seeking even the most basic assistance from law enforcement. In other words, such agreements do not enforce the rule of law. They undermine it as well as harm public safety.
Sheriff Johnson has already proven that any collaboration with ICE will inevitably lead to racial profiling and deepen the rift between immigrant communities and Alamance County law enforcement. By engaging in this new collaboration, both Sheriff Johnson and the Trump administration will continue to compromise public safety and equal protection under the law.
No one, including members of our immigrant communities, should be treated as a source of revenue for law enforcement — whether it’s in Alamance County or anywhere else across the United States.
Alissa Ellis is the Regional Immigants’ Rights Strategist for ACLU of North Carolina