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The phones at Sand Hill-Venable Elementary began ringing with worried calls from the Hilltop community in Asheville on Tuesday, as faculty heard students talking about “men in black cars.”
After meeting the family of a man whom federal immigration agents had detained temporarily that morning, Assistant Principal Cindy Newman told a colleague she was concerned.
“Her story and concern for her children was raw,” Newman wrote in an email obtained by Carolina Public Press. “My heart breaks for these sweet families that mean so much to our school.”
Ultimately, concerned about fearful children, Newman and other staff took direct action.
“This afternoon, six staff members rode the bus to Hilltop and we walked many of the 54 students to their houses,” she wrote. “The students were excited and relieved. The parents – grateful. We will continue to do this until Friday, as we are told ICE will stay in the area until the weekend. We need to make sure our students are safe.”
Communities in western and central North Carolina are continuing to deal with the aftermath of highly publicized federal immigration arrests of dozens of people in recent days. But tensions remain high, unraveling the facts from the rumors, with statements from various public agencies, advocacy groups, news media and social media offering different accounts.
A key contribution to concerns are allegations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are staking out schools, bus stops and medical facilities, something an agency spokesperson vigorously denies.
“The rumor is categorically false,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox told CPP in an email on Wednesday. “As a general rule, ICE does not conduct enforcement at schools, churches and hospitals, as those locations fall under the agency’s sensitive locations policy, which remains in effect. We’ve clarified previously that (this policy) extends to we would not target persons as a location we knew to be a school bus stop.”
However, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara forwarded a photo to CPP on Thursday that a community member had posted to Facebook saying it showed “an ICE vehicle parked at a school bus stop.”
The caption on Facebook said: “This is near Northview Trailer Park in Weaverville this morning. This is a verified ICE vehicle.”
The commissioner told CPP that she was seeking additional information about how community members were so certain this was an ICE vehicle.
“Without a license plate, I cannot verify either way,” Cox wrote in response to the photo. “I don’t see any obvious equipment that would indicate it to be a law enforcement vehicle, but I can’t rule it out either based just on that photo.
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“What I can say is that ICE does not request information from school districts as to where bus stops are located. Nor would the agency conduct enforcement at any location it knew to be a bus stop.”
In a further interview by phone, Cox sought to clarify this situation. While he could not be certain whether the vehicle in the photo was from his agency, he expressed confidence that if agents had parked near a school bus stop, they had not done so deliberately.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere of concern about recent arrests has clearly shaken immigrant communities in North Carolina, especially in areas of Buncombe, Henderson, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties where arrests have been publicized.
After the first set of arrests in western counties on Saturday, the immigrant advocacy group Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción (CIMA) called a press conference on the federal courthouse steps in Asheville. Several speakers expressed concern that the arrests would lead to fears that would result in widespread absences from schools.
According to rumors and social media posts, those fears were realized this week with substantial numbers of Latino students staying home.
At the request of CPP, Buncombe County Public School officials are continuing to check data for any spike in absenteeism among Latino students at the schools with substantial Hispanic populations. But such a spike, if it exists, wasn’t substantial enough to come to the attention of school officials without combing through the attendance records.
In Chatham County, schools spokesperson John McCann told CPP that he talked with principals at the schools there that have a substantial population of Latino students. None of them had noticed any increase in absences.
But McCann also confirmed that the principals in that Central North Carolina county had also heard the same sort of talk that was circulating in the west – that fears about arrests might drive up absences.
ICE actions and policies
At the heart of these community concerns are disputes over exactly what ICE officers have been doing in recent days. Published news reports have given divergent accounts of how many people ICE agents have arrested and social media accounts differ even more.
Cox said ICE does not normally track arrest counts below the field-office level, which includes North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, home to the field office located in Atlanta.
However, due to the large number of media inquiries, he asked for calculations on recent arrests in North Carolina and found that, as of Sunday, 40 people had been arrested, with roughly 25 in central counties and 15 in western counties.
While several reports describe additional arrests since Sunday, that shouldn’t be surprising, Cox said.
His office averages 250 arrests in its three-state region every week, he explained, though he couldn’t say with certainty what percentage of those arrests occurred in North Carolina.
“We make arrests every day,” Cox said. “Like any agency … not every officer is out every day. But this is what these officers do. They go out and make fugitive arrests, and that’s what they will do every day.”
He said ICE agents may be based at the field office in Atlanta, but agents are assigned throughout North Carolina and the recent arrests do not represent a new assignment of agents to the area or one that will end soon. Instead, he described a continued presence of agents who would seek to make arrests.
Criticism from public officials
In both parts of North Carolina, public officials have criticized the recent arrests, calling into question ICE claims that they target those with criminal issues beyond just being in the United States illegally.
“We are aware of the recent ICE activity that began on April 14, 2018,” said Buncombe County Commissioners Brownie Newman, Beach Ferrara, Ellen Frost and Al Whitesides in a joint statement on Thursday.
“We understand from the community that the majority of arrests were related to immigration status rather than pending criminal charges.”
But, according to Cox, a focus on fugitives and criminals is a necessity for the agency and has existed for years, regardless of who is in the White House. Cox noted that he is not a political appointee and is now serving under his fourth president.
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Cox explained that the agency has about 20,000 agents nationwide, which is smaller than the New York City Police Department. “We don’t have the resources to arrest every person in the country unlawfully even if we wanted to,” he said.
As a result, ICE agents are prioritized to target public fugitives, criminals, gang members and others individuals believed to be a threat to public safety.
But Cox also confirmed that the agency does sometimes arrest other undocumented immigrants its agents encounter at the locations where they are seeking those on their priority list.
While Cox expressed confidence that the majority of the 40 people arrested in North Carolina over the week ending Sunday fell into the criminal and fugitive class, he did not rule out that some others were also picked up.
“We don’t turn a blind eye,” he said.
Carolina Public Press is continuing work to verify claims about the backgrounds of those who have been arrested in recent days by ICE agents across North Carolina. If you would like to offer any relevant or related information, please call 828-774-5290.