“It’s one thing to know that people are being detained and separated every day. It’s another to experience that pain and suffering for yourself,” explains Yolanda Zavala, a mother of five who immigrated to North Carolina from southern Mexico more than two decades ago.
In 2008, Yolanda’s 18-year-old son was arrested in Wake County for driving without a license on his way back from a soccer game. What should’ve been a simple citation turned into one of the most painful moments of Yolanda’s life. Her son spent six months in detention centers and eventually became one of the first people in Wake County to be deported under 287(g), a federal program that deputizes local law enforcement to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) target, jail, and deport community members who are undocumented.
Yolanda channeled the pain of her son’s experience by becoming an advocate for her community. For the last ten years, Yolanda has been fighting a widespread anti-immigrant narrative that painted her son as a criminal and has impacted multiple members of her family. “We live knowing that any day ICE can deport you,” she said. “I’ve stayed up so many nights thinking about my other children being arrested and waiting for that call. Every time we leave the house we are never confident that we will return home.” Yolanda’s son-in-law was also ensnared in ICE’s deportation machine. She watched her grandchildren sit by the front door and wait for their dad to come home for days, unable to explain that he wasn’t coming back. Tens of thousands of community members have been deported from North Carolina under the 287(g) program.
Despite the fear-mongering of anti-immigrant politicians, there is no evidence that mass deportations or local cooperation with ICE makes communities safer. If anything, these agreements harm public safety for all residents. Studies from the University of Illinois and the Center for American Progress have shown that when local authorities partner with federal immigration officers, people who are victims or witnesses of crime – regardless of their immigration status – are far less likely to contact law enforcement out of fear that they would investigate the immigration status of friends or relatives. A 2018 study from the libertarian Cato Institute found no evidence that partnerships with ICE reduce crime rates. And another study from the University of North Carolina showed that more than 86 percent of people placed in deportation proceedings through 287(g) agreements in North Carolina were arrested for misdemeanors, 32 percent for traffic violations.
Communities across our state are resisting ICE, and the movement to dismantle the deportation pipeline in North Carolina achieved historic victories in the last year. Community organizing helped end the 287(g) programs in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the two biggest in the state, and elect new sheriffs in those counties and others who campaigned on pro-immigrant platforms, including Buncombe, Forsyth, Guilford, and Durham. When anti-immigrant legislators partnered with ICE to pass House Bill 370, which threatened to remove democratically elected sheriffs from office if they refused to spend local resources to cooperate with ICE, immigrants’ rights groups, the ACLU, and others banded together to fight the bill, which was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
But the campaign for a North Carolina free from ICE raids and deportations is far from over. Four counties - Cabarrus, Gaston, Henderson, and Nash - remain in the 287(g) program, and most others continue to detain people when ICE asks without due process. We won’t stop fighting until these voluntary local partnerships with ICE are fully dismantled.
When someone is taken into custody by ICE and deported, it has a ripple effect that touches and disrupts the daily lives of their entire community: children, spouses, co-workers, neighbors, and more.
Griselda Alonso knows what it’s like to live with the constant worry that ICE can detain a member of your family at any time, including her own. “The mental health of our children has been gravely impacted, given that day to day we become closer to having someone around us be deported, and without us even wanting to, our fear is reflected in the eyes of a mother as she drives and a police car pulls behind her,” she says. “That same fear has been transferred to our children’s schools, as many of our children’s education is impacted by them knowing that the day before a neighbor, a friend, or a family member has been deported.” For her, a North Carolina free from ICE would mean that her teenage daughter would no longer need to brace herself for the worst every time her mother drives and risks being pulled over.
“Many of our family members, including our children, are U.S. citizens,” Griselda says. “We work, we pay taxes, and we deserve to live without fear.”
Martha Hernandez migrated from Mexico City at 17 looking for stability and freedom from persecution, which she has found in North Carolina with her two children. Still, every morning before she goes to work, like many people in her community, she checks for suspicious cars. “ We’re moms who work hard every day but still make time to meet every week to figure out how to protect our families and improve our community.”
Martha, Yolanda, and Griselda all work full-time jobs, organize cultural events, and have been leading the movement to end the collaboration between North Carolina local enforcement and ICE since the inception of the 287(g) program in Wake County. “This movement is not just about us, it also includes the faces of those who go straight from work to protest, who bring their kids along to meetings, and those who show up to lobby despite their fear,” said Martha. “Each and every one of our triumphs is something that we all worked for.”
Thanks to their organizing, and the support of North Carolinians across the state, these three women hope we are inching closer to the community they are trying to build. Yolanda’s 18-year-old granddaughter described to her the bittersweet feeling of being able to cast her first vote for a sheriff who vowed to eliminate the program that had deported her dad when she was a child.
“We just want to live in peace, dignity, and no more fear,” says Martha. “Getting ICE out of North Carolina would mean not living with the emotional anxiety and uncertainty about what will happen every time you step out of your house. I want to have the tranquility of not having to worry about what is going to happen to me on my way home to my children. Only then will I breathe a sigh of relief and be able to say that I am truly free.”