For many undocumented immigrants, their entire lives in the United States can unravel as a result of going through a single driver’s license checkpoint, an event that can triggering detainment and deportation proceedings.
This is something that Brian Callaway says he understands “theoretically” as a U.S. citizen and self-described “white guy.” Callaway is the coordinator of energy and sustainability at Durham Public Schools (DPS) in North Carolina. On Monday around 4 p.m., when he was leaving the school district’s Department of Maintenance, he encountered a driver’s license checkpoint near the intersection of Hamlin Road and Industrial Drive. The checkpoint was being conducted by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office just a three-minute drive from the School for Creative Studies, a public school for sixth through 12th graders that has a Latino population over 20 percent.
With recent nationwide immigration sweeps that resulted in the detainment of nearly 700 undocumented immigrants and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) release of documents translating President Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders into policy, Callaway told Rewire the checkpoint was cause for concern.
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In an email to Durham Sheriff Mike Andrews, Callaway relayed the exchange he had at the scene with deputies, whom he said initially refused to identify themselves to the DPS employee. Because, as Callaway wrote, he had “never been through a daytime checkpoint in the United States” in his life, he wanted to know if it had anything to do with the “new federal administration.” Callaway, who shared the email with Rewire, said the deputies told him the sheriff’s office was “conducting a license and registration check,” purportedly because of a high incidence of speeding that had been reported in the area.
The sheriff’s office public information officer, Tamara Gibbs, confirmed this in an emailed statement to Rewire. “The Sheriff’s Office was conducting traffic enforcement in the area. The agency often receives complaints or concerns about speeders and other traffic violations, especially in neighborhoods and school zones,” Gibbs wrote.
Speeding in the area was also cited as the reason for the checkpoint to Matt Sears, a member of the DPS Board of Education, which has been outspoken in its advocacy on behalf of Durham’s undocumented students.
Judith Montenegro sits on the board of directors of the Durham-based Latino advocacy organization El Centro Hispano, which works closely with the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office’s Hispanic Community Outreach Coordinator Captain Raheem Aleem told her that the checkpoint occurred because there had been break-ins in the area between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., she said to Rewire in a Wednesday phone interview. Aleem told other concerned Durham community members the same.
In an email to Rewire Thursday morning, Gibbs said “the Sheriff’s Office was made aware of speeding concerns in the area” and that she was unaware of break-ins in the area. “If a law enforcement agency conducts a checkpoint in response to break-ins, that would contradict the law,” Gibbs wrote. If break-ins in the area were the reason for the checkpoint, deputies with the sheriff’s office violated North Carolina’s statute for checking stations and roadblocks, which states that checkpoints may only be used to detect violations of any motor vehicle laws. The statute says clearly that checkpoints may not be used for “general crime control.”
Later, after speaking to Aleem, Gibbs told Rewire that the captain believes “sources have either quoted him out of context or misunderstood the information he’s shared.” Gibbs went on to say, “While there may be other criminal activity in an area surrounding a checkpoint, and a checkpoint with a significant law enforcement presence might serve as a deterrent for criminal activity in that area, that was not the reason for the sheriff’s office traffic efforts on Monday.”
Regardless of the stated justification for it, in a phone interview with Rewire, Sears said the checkpoint was “extremely disturbing.”
“If we assume the best intentions from everyone and assume the sheriff’s office did not make the connection that they were conducting this checkpoint near a school that was letting out, there is some tone deafness to the needs and concerns of the community that needs to be addressed,” Sears said. “Again, assuming best intentions, if it was really just about speeding in the area, there are better ways to address that than stopping people and asking for identification. I hope this is literally just a situation of ignorance.”
Gibbs told Rewire the checkpoint was “absolutely not immigration enforcement.” Claims to the contrary may be due to “heightened anxiety and fear” in the community as a result of “the debate over immigration on the national level.”
But concerns over checkpoints go back many years, and are valid. In 2010, the New York Times reported that throughout the country, at least 30,000 undocumented immigrants who were stopped for common traffic violations over the span of three years ended up in deportation.
In his email to Sheriff Andrews, Callaway detailed how “deeply troubled” he was by the checkpoint, writing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has “deported individuals for infractions as minor as license violation” in the city. By extension, the DPS employee wrote, Durham’s deputies’ actions this week were “directly threatening the livelihoods of people who are residing and working” in the community.
Callaway also expressed concern that the checkpoint took place at 4 p.m., when the School for Creative Studies releases its students. “Many parents and guardians pass through the intersection where the checkpoint occurred as they pick children up from school, and many students including several buses pass through at the exact time that the roadblock was in operation,” Callaway wrote. Earlier this month in Charlotte, children on a school bus witnessed undocumented immigrants being taken into ICE custody after a sweep was conducted at a nearby mobile home park that was on their route to school.
Callaway told Rewire that during Monday’s checkpoint in Durham, his co-worker saw a Latina with two small children pull into the maintenance department’s parking lot to avoid the checkpoint, perhaps fearful that she would be detained for being undocumented and not having a driver’s license.
Bert L’Homme, the superintendent of Durham Public Schools, told Rewire in a statement that “local law enforcement generally notifies a school if an enforcement action may impact school activities or traffic immediately entering or exiting a school.” Because the School for Creative Studies was two miles away from the checkpoint, however, Durham Public Schools was not notified of it.
When Callaway informed deputies at the checkpoint he would be writing an email to Sheriff Andrews detailing his experience and expressing his concerns, he was told by a deputy at the scene that they would be notifying Callaway’s employer about his “insubordination” to make them are aware he was “causing trouble.” Callaway copied all of his superiors and the entire Durham School Board on the email to Sheriff Andrews.
According to organizers and advocates in the area, driver’s license checkpoints were happening in Durham well before Trump took office. The problem, they told Rewire, is that Durham County Sheriff’s Office has historically been dishonest in its assertion that it does not engage in immigration enforcement and does not work with ICE.
In an email to Rewire Thursday morning, Gibbs wrote, “The Sheriff’s Office participates in Secure Communities. The agency uses that term even though there may be other immigration programs that go by another name.”
“A deputy is only required to determine the person’s immigration status only if a person is arrested on a felony or an impaired driving offense (boating included),” Gibbs wrote. “Typically, the Sheriff’s Office is only made aware of a person’s status if they are processed at the detention facility. During the booking process, fingerprints are checked to determine whether a person has other outstanding criminal charges. The Sheriff’s Office does not have the ability to opt in or to opt out of the state’s fingerprint database. The state coordinates the database.”
As Rewire reported, the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program was put into place by President George W. Bush and escalated under President Barack Obama, though it was replaced in 2014 by the Priority Enforcement Program, which is essentially the same program. On the campaign trail, then-Republican presidential candidate Trump said he wanted to bring back S-Comm, which required local law enforcement agencies to submit biometric information—including fingerprints—from anyone they arrested to a federal database. ICE would then submit detainers—written requests—requiring local law enforcement to hold those who were undocumented until they could get picked up for deportation. Countless horror stories emerged in the years S-Comm was in operation, like mothers with no criminal history being put in deportation proceedings for selling ice cream on the street and college students being sent to detention centers for broken car taillights.
The Durham County Detention Facility—the local jail—faxes fingerprints to ICE, according to Gibbs. If ICE issues an immigration detainer, the undocumented immigrant will remain in custody until their case is adjudicated. Once all charges for any county or state have been adjudicated, ICE is notified by the arresting agency. There’s a 48-hour deadline, including holidays and weekends, for ICE to take custody of the undocumented immigrant. If ICE does not arrive within 48 hours, the person is released.
There is evidence that Durham has long assisted ICE in immigration enforcement. According to TRAC Immigration, which tracks immigration detainer requests by state, Durham received 1,167 detainer requests from 2010 to 2016. In 484 of those instances, ICE assumed custody of an undocumented immigrant who was initially arrested by local law enforcement.
In a phone call with Rewire, Gibbs said Durham is a “Secure Communities participant, but we are not into immigration enforcement.” These are two statements in diametric opposition to each other.
Before being informed by Rewire, Sears and other advocates were unaware that Durham participated in Secure Communities. Some even claimed that the sheriff’s office had previously said it did not participate in Secure Communities. Advocates fear this lack of transparency will only get worse under the Trump administration.
In addition to the looming reimplementation of S-Comm, ICE was also recently instructed by DHS to revive the 287(g) program “that recruits local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to help with deportation, effectively making them de facto immigration agents,” the New York Times reported. The program, first implemented in 1996, was scaled back during the Obama administration. But according to a 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation and the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the program had widespread detrimental effects on the state’s undocumented population. The report’s authors detailed how the program marginalized an already vulnerable population, encouraged “or at the very least” tolerated racial profiling, produced fear of law enforcement that caused undocumented immigrant communities to refrain from reporting crimes, and violated basic civil liberties and legal protections.
Callaway told Rewire that Sheriff Andrews called him no more than two hours after receiving his email early Tuesday morning. Callaway said that over the course of their conversation, the sheriff told him the Durham County Detention Facility facilitates calls from ICE to inmates; it is unclear as to what ends.
“It was when I was talking about the issue with ICE detainers and he told me directly that there have been times when ICE has come for people at the jail, but most of the time they patch them through to ICE on the phone,” Callaway said. “I’d never heard that before, so I asked to confirm—I said, ‘So ICE is calling to speak with people in the jail?’ He said yes, that nine times out of ten, ICE will call and they will speak with [undocumented immigrants who have been arrested] on the phone.”
Callaway, like many others, was told Monday’s checkpoint in Durham was “not at all about immigration enforcement.”
“While that might be technically true and while that might not have been its main purpose, people in this area have been deported from traffic citations resulting from not having a license at a checkpoint. Any checkpoint becomes a de facto immigration checkpoint,” Callaway said.
Callaway was told that any undocumented immigrants who encounter a checkpoint and cannot provide a valid license are simply issued a citation and have to go to court. The problem with that, Callaway said, is that the court has no translator.
“Folks can show up with every intention to pay a citation, but may not have means to communicate that to the Clerk of the Court. If you miss court dates because you can’t communicate, charges compound,” resulting in arrest warrants. “If you’re picked up [by local law enforcement] and that comes with an ICE detainer, you can be deported,” Callaway said.
Gibbs told Rewire that people issued citations during checkpoints are referred to El Centro Hispano “for help.” The organization can assist undocumented immigrants in obtaining a FaithAction ID, which is a form of identification issued to any community member who does not have access to government-issued forms of identification. Montenegro said the sheriff’s office has referred undocumented immigrants to El Centro Hispano for the purpose of obtaining an ID, but could not confirm this had ever happened as a direct result of being stopped at a checkpoint.
Under a new administration targeting undocumented immigrants, this confusion and lack of transparency from local law enforcement agencies only stokes fears.
Sandro Mendoza is an organizer with Alerta Migratoria, a North Carolina-based grassroots organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants. In a phone interview with Rewire, Mendoza said checkpoints have been a contentious issue in Durham for a long time because they are often conducted in known immigrant communities and low-income communities of color.
But for Mendoza, the issue is also deeply personal. He has two little sisters who attend school in Durham and his mom drives them to and from school every day. The organizer said his mom doesn’t like driving anymore because it feels “too risky” in light of ever-circulating rumors of ICE checkpoints, after immigration sweeps that led to the detainment of 84 undocumented immigrants in North Carolina earlier this month.
“My mom keeps telling me that there are after-school activities my sisters want to do, but she doesn’t want to risk driving any later than she has to. She’s scared,” Mendoza said. “Checkpoints aren’t a new thing, they’re something our community has grown used to, but we shouldn’t have to—and we hate it.”
Mendoza continued, “We want the sheriff’s office to not just stop doing this, but be honest about why they’re doing this.”