Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson's office, like many police departments in the US, once partnered with ICE under the 287 (g) program, which "has led to illegal racial profiling and civil rights abuses" by allowing local police to check the immigration status of any individual they come into contact with for any reason, and then pass undocumented individuals on to be deported by the federal agency, according to the ACLU.
Their cooperation started in 2007 and lasted until 2012, when the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against Johnson for practices which discriminated against the county's Latino community, which currently makes up about 12 percent of the total population.
According to the DOJ, the sheriff had checkpoints set up near Latino-majority neighborhoods, "forcing residents to endure police checks when entering or leaving their communities." Minor traffic violations would land Latino residents under arrest while non-Latinos were merely issued citations. Johnson's deputies were four to 10 times more likely to stop Latinos compared to other demographics, and the sheriff and other police leadership in the county would "foster a culture of bias by using anti-Latino epithets," according to the DOJ.
Those slurs included phrases like, "Go out there and catch me some Mexicans," and "Go out there and get me some of those taco-eaters," according to the Raleigh-based News & Observer.
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Judge Thomas Schroeder dropped the government's case against the sheriff in 2015, arguing that the DOJ failed to show the sheriff's office's behavior was discriminatory. The DOJ appealed the ruling, but dropped the suit after reaching a settlement with Johnson a year later.
But for Alamance County's Latino community, the words still sting, especially as the sheriff is now trying to renew 287 (g) cooperation with ICE. ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told News & Observer in an email for a story published June 14 that they had yet to approve the application. It would also need to be agreed to by the county's commissioners before it could go into effect.
On Wednesday, angry residents backed by a mariachi band protested outside Alamance County Detention Center. "The last time this county implemented 287 (g), it was sued and had to pay over $800,000 in fees for targeting the Latino population of this county with racial profiling," one speaker said.
"And so many of us were here in 2010 living in fear, and the sheriff said ‘Bring those taco-eaters to me,'" immigration activist Emma Vazquez said in Spanish. "We're here!"
"If he wants tacos, we'll give him tacos," Vazquez said.
Protesters then brought a tray of tacos into the jail, but deputies refused to accept them on behalf of the sheriff, initially ordering activists to leave the premises because it wasn't included in the permit for their protest. The officer then told them a few could stay to try to deliver the tacos, but then they were then told that nothing could be accepted from outside the jail.
Activists left them on the floor of the waiting room instead.
While some of the people at the protest made big displays of their opposition to the potential partnership with ICE, others played it safe. One Mexican mother of two children told News & Observer about two of her friends who were deported after their arrest by the sheriff's office for driving without a license. If the partnership is renewed, "We won't feel safe outside doing the things we normally do, like grocery shopping," she said.