The police officers helping undocumented immigrants feel safe

In Greensboro, North Carolina, building trust among undocumented residents and local police has been the first step toward supporting the vulnerable in their community.

Image credit: FaithAction International House.

A flood of negative emotions used to hit Ella whenever she’d see a police officer. “There was definitely a lack of trust,” she says. But now she knows officers by name, saying hello whenever she encounters them on their bikes downtown.

Ella, 28, grew up in Mexico, where she was taught to be skeptical of police. And as an undocumented person who could be deported any moment, she has stayed skeptical well after arriving in the United States at 12 years old.

But thanks to a program that brings residents and local law enforcement officers together in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Ella now lives, her anxieties have eased.

Greensboro – and North Carolina in general – is home to a growing population of both documented and undocumented immigrants.

In 24 years, the state’s entire immigrant population more than quadrupled. A 2015 report by the Brookings Institute shows that some North Carolina cities – including Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro – that have historically had small immigrant populations have seen “extraordinary growth” in recent decades.

Silva Mathema, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says immigrants are moving to states that haven’t historically attracted them “simply because of jobs and cost of living … the reasons that you and I move to other places.” Still, Mathema says, a growing immigrant presence doesn’t always mean state or local governments will be welcoming.

In fact, five counties in North Carolina work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement through the federal 287(g) program, where ICE officials and federal, state, and local law enforcement partner to identify undocumented immigrants. That’s the most of any state.

North Carolina’s state government has also officially banned city or county sanctuary ordinances statewide. In October 2015, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 318, or the Protect North Carolina Workers Act, to institute the ban. The law also prohibits clerks, judges, and other state government officials from accepting non-government-issued IDs as a valid form of identification.

Before HB 318, Greensboro had declared itself a “welcoming city” to immigrants and people of all races. McCrory’s anti-immigrant bill was a cautionary move against cities like Greensboro. But despite this crackdown on sanctuary policies, Greensboro is still striving to be a welcoming city to its undocumented immigrants.

The city shows that offering safety to undocumented immigrants doesn’t require formal sanctuary-city policies. In Greensboro, building relationships and trust among undocumented residents and local police, faith communities, and schools has been the first step in seeking protections for these vulnerable community members.

FaithAction International House, an international faith-based organization that connects immigrants to the broader community, is the nonprofit behind the program in Greensboro.

Back in 2012, FaithAction’s undocumented immigrant members began to share their experiences as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and robbery. They were hesitant to report the crimes, they said, because they distrusted law enforcement and feared deportation.

“We wanted to be there for them, ” says Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of FaithAction, “but we recognized that there were some serious crimes taking place … and knew we needed law enforcement involved.”

So FaithAction and other immigration activists reached out to the local police department to organize events that brought law enforcement and undocumented immigrant communities together in houses of worship.

By summer 2013, plain-clothed officers were entering congregations. Faith leaders – whom the community trusted – introduced the officers.

In these sessions, police officers would ask congregants to share their experiences with law enforcement. The officers could share too, and at least one officer shared that his parents were also immigrants. Initially, these meetings offered opportunities for immigrants to meet and build trust with local police officers.

Eventuall, these sessions evolved into a larger conversation around solutions, says Greensboro Deputy Chief Michael Richey. “What we kept coming back to was a fear of not having an ID, getting them put to jail, [and then] deported.” So the police department and FaithAction took steps to pave the way for the FaithAction ID, which gives someone a community-trusted ID that they can use at health centers, schools, and local businesses.

Since 2013, FaithAction has organized regular ID drives that also serve as know-your-rights trainings. Here, any community member can arrive to hear advice from police themselves. After getting their photos taken, attendees walk away with IDs that their community – including local law enforcement – recognizes, a simple act that helps keep undocumented immigrants from facing unnecessary detainment.

At these events, police officers also answer questions about immigrants’ rights and offer advice on avoiding negative police interactions.

“We don’t feel like we cannot serve a certain part of our community because they’re not documented,” says Richey. “If anything, that opens them up for further victimization, and that [crime] doesn’t just stop with them.”

Without the ID provided, officers are forced to detain individuals. “That’s a problem,” says Fraccaro. “[It’s a] problem for the officer because they don’t know who they’re dealing with and [a] problem for the individual because they can go to jail if they can’t ID themselves.”

HB 318 initially prohibited law enforcement officers from accepting non-government-issued IDs, but the Greensboro and Burlington police departments pushed back. The state added a last-minute amendment, hearing from chiefs of police as well as Rev. Fraccaro about how the community ID program has built trust with immigrant communities so that they will report crimes more often.

Now, 16 law enforcement agencies, four major health centers, and dozens of businesses and cultural art organizations accept the ID throughout the state.

Any Greensboro resident – documented or not – can walk away from these ID drives with a new form of identification and a newfound trust. Ella has one. Her parents do, too. Ella had worked for FaithAction. She says the community policing workshops and ID drives have helped her and her family trust the police more.

These ID drives and community policing programs are just one piece of how local groups are working to “serve, love, and protect” their Greensboro neighbors, said Fraccaro. But ultimately, they aren’t enough to prevent deportation.

In schools and churches in Greensboro, congregations and parents are seeking other ways to protect undocumented immigrant families, especially when ICE comes knocking.

At the Congregational United Church of Christ, Pastor Julie Peeples is initiating conversations around how the church could offer sanctuary by housing undocumented immigrants. Where would a temporary shower go? Should they prepare rooms in the church to house people? Or should church members offer their private homes as shelter?

Parents in Greensboro are asking if schools can offer sanctuary, too.

Roughly 15 moms, including Maria Luisa González, have been talking to the Guilford County Schools Board of Education, which oversees Greensboro, about what sanctuary in schools would look like. González is an undocumented 42-year-old mom who’s fed up with hiding and staying silent, she says.

For González, these conversations are enough to feel more hopeful and relaxed than she’s been in a while.

“Groups of parents are getting to know their rights, that we’re not second-class citizens,” she says in Spanish. “We’re human beings who deserve respect and for our kids to be safe and secure.”

Relationships, conversations, and knowledge: This is the recipe.

In North Carolina, sanctuary city policies may be outlawed. But in Greensboro, the nitty-gritty work of building sanctuary communities is still underway. It’s happening outside of government halls, in churches and schools. Community members – immigrants, congregants, and local police officers – are gathering in these spaces to learn how they can protect their neighbors. They’re taking it one step at a time.


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