ICE: Nearly 500 undocumented immigrants released from NC jails despite detainer

Updated: Sep. 9, 2019 at 11:37 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – Nearly 500 undocumented immigrants have been released from jails across the state in the past ten months despite administrative detainers filed against them by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

WBTV obtained new data compiled by ICE outlining the figures. The data covers Fiscal Year 2019, which began in October 2018 and runs through next month.

Click here to view the ICE ERO data

According to the data, 489 detainers were declined by law enforcement.

A detainer is an administrative request from the federal government to a local law enforcement agency to hold someone in jail even after they are eligible for release on their state charge.

A detainer is often used by ICE to keep undocumented immigrants in jail because removal from the country is a civil action and not a criminal matter.

Previous: US Attorney critical of Mecklenburg Co. Sheriff over ICE policies, files federal charges against man in May SWAT standoff

The debate over whether local authorities should cooperate with ICE detainers has raged this year after Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden announced he would no longer honor ICE detainers.

McFadden campaigned on a pledge to not participate in the 287(g) program, a federal program where local law enforcement agencies are given authority to enforce some immigration laws.

McFadden ended his office’s participation in the 287(g) program soon after taking office in December 2018 and also announced he would no longer honor ICE detainers, which are separate from the 287(g) program.

Last month, McFadden came under fire after ICE arrested a Honduran fugitive who had been released from the Mecklenburg County Jail after being arrested on rape and child sex offense charges.

Oscar Pacheco-Leonardo, 33, a Honduran national, was arrested during a targeted enforcement operation in Mecklenburg County on August 9.

Previous: ICE arrests fugitive on rape charges in NC after prior release in Mecklenburg County

ICE officials said the arrest came nearly two months after the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office refused to honor an ICE detainer, or even notify ICE of the release and, instead, released Pacheco-Leonardo following his arrest on charges including first-degree rape and indecent liberties with a minor.

At the time, McFadden defended the release of Pacheco-Leonardo.

“Upon fulfilling his court ordered terms and conditions of release, including the payment of a $100,000 bond, Pacheco-Leonardo was released from Detention Center Central on June 16th as required by law. Setting bond amounts and conditions of release are the responsibility of Mecklenburg County, Judges and Magistrates,” McFadden said.

ICE officials said Pacheco-Leonardo was previously removed from the U.S. to Honduras in July 2006.

According to the new ICE data obtained by WBTV, the nearly 500 undocumented immigrants who have been released in FY19 despite a federal detainer include people charged with sex offenses, kidnapping, arson and homicide.

It was not clear from the data, however, how many of those released despite an ICE detainer were set free from the Mecklenburg County Jail.

A senior DHS official, who requested they not be named to speak candidly about McFadden’s refusal to honor ICE detainers, pointed to new policies implemented by McFadden and four other sheriffs elected across the state in 2018 who campaigned on pledges to end cooperation with ICE.

"The level of criminal aliens intentionally released into Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties is alarming, but even worse is that the true extent of this dangerous trend may never be fully realized,” the senior official said.

Previous: Meck. Sheriff fires back after criticisms from U.S. Attorney over 287g, detainers for undocumented immigrants

The official pointed out that the statistics only include cases in which undocumented immigrants are entered into the national criminal database and ICE becomes aware of them being in custody and can issue a detainer.

“If an illegal alien is arrested for a crime and is then released by local law enforcement without ever alerting ICE officials, a lifted detainer will never be registered in our systems and the alien may only come to our attention once it's too late,” the official said.

“The reality is that when they obstruct federal law enforcement's mission of upholding our nation's laws and keeping American's safe, the people who lose most are those they’re supposed to put first," the official continued.

McFadden held a press conference late Monday afternoon at which he doubled down on his refusal to honor ICE detainers and highlighted a criminal justice system that allows people charged with violent crimes to easily post bond.

In a statement issued late Monday night, after the press conference, McFadden’s spokeswoman, Tonya Rivens, said McFadden was open to continuing cooperation with ICE and addressing the broader criminal justice system.

“Sheriff has met with ICE several times and welcomes the opportunity to meet again,” Rivens said. “Sheriff has suggested creating a joint team to consider steps to fix a ‘broken’ system.”

But Rivens told WBTV that McFadden will not honor ICE detainers under any circumstances.

“MCSO does not honor voluntary ICE administrative detainers. However, MCSO does (and MCSO must) honor federal arrest warrants. Sheriff will not consider detainers,” spokeswoman Tonya Rivens said.

Rivens also pushed back on criticism from DHS that McFadden’s refusal to cooperate with ICE detainers and participate in 287(g) meant he was obstructing federal law enforcement.

"Sheriff’s position on 287(g) and voluntary ICE detainers does not mean that MCSO does not cooperate with ICE and all other law enforcement agencies regarding other matters, including without limitation, aiding all law enforcement agencies in enforcement of their respective operations at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse,' Rivens said. “Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has over 400 federal residents/inmates in custody. ICE is the only federal agency to make that statement.”

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) issued a statement early Monday afternoon in response to WBTV’s reporting.

“North Carolina counties are releasing illegal immigrants charged with violent crimes like rape and murder without even notifying federal officials, jeopardizing public safety," Tillis’ statement said. "This is why Congress needs to pass legislation I introduced to protect North Carolinians from dangerous criminals and to hold sanctuary counties responsible for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.”

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