Before Lowell Griffin ran for sheriff of Henderson County in 2018, he asked Stephanie Barbosa if she thought he could win.
Barbosa, 28, was an unusual person for the straight-laced sheriff’s deputy to ask: She had spent two decades in the United States undocumented.
By the time that Griffin asked Barbosa this, she had become a naturalized citizen through marriage. She’d worked a string of jobs, from an Italian restaurant, to a private law office, to the district attorney’s office, where she’d met Griffin. They had become friends.
Griffin told her he hoped to help the Latino and immigrant communities of Hendersonville. Maybe he could change how they saw the sheriff’s office—not as an adversary, but as an ally.
Hendersonville, the seat of Henderson County, is known as a city of four seasons: apples, berries, poinsettias, and Christmas trees. A large seasonal workforce arrives each year, joining thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador who have put down roots here. They play soccer at Jackson Park, clean houses in gated retirement communities, and shop at the Saturday flea market. The Latino community here increased from 10,423 in 2010 to nearly 15,000 in 2020, now making up nearly 13 percent of the county’s population. It’s the type of population large enough to have a sizable impact on a small town in western North Carolina, but small enough for most people to know each other.
But Henderson County is also a GOP-stronghold where farmers may argue in favor of protecting their migrant workforce, but conservative groups have been busy promoting nativist policies and electing immigration hardliners like Rep. Madison Cawthorn. That issue had come to the fore in debates over statute 287(g), which empowers federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to perform immigration enforcement in collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Proponents say it is a force multiplier ensuring public safety. Critics say it unfairly targets immigrants, particularly Latinos, for minor crimes and erodes their trust in local law enforcement.
Griffin did not initially take an explicit stance on 287(g), but ICE raids throughout western North Carolina forced the issue in an April 17, 2018 campaign forum. “I don’t want to use it as a tactic that’s going to intimidate the Latino community that this county relies so heavily on,” Griffin said at the forum. “There are industries that would fold without these folks, who have become a huge part of our community. We have to earn their trust.”
Griffin’s moderate stance seemed to diverge from incumbent Charlie McDonald, who had repeatedly defended his office’s participation. The day of the debate, McDonald told a local newspaper that the 287(g) agreement was a “great tool to help us get rid of a lot of the gangbangers.”
“There seemed to be some leeway there, like [Griffin] might be open to shifting policies,” said Lori Garcia-McCammon, founder and executive director of True Ridge, a non-profit organization focused on advocacy for the Latino community.
When Griffin won the Republican primary that May 2018—an upset rare in sheriff elections—immigrant and Latino advocacy groups celebrated with a “farewell party” outside McDonald’s downtown Hendersonville office. An invitation for the event read: “When Sheriff McDonald lost his re-election campaign, the community saw an opportunity to turn away from the enforcement-first ideology and focus on creating safer communities for everyone.”
Progressive challengers were gaining traction in sheriff races across the state, many running on the promise that they would no longer cooperate with ICE. That fall, voters in Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Guildford, and Forsyth counties all elected new sheriffs who opposed 287(g) contracts. Voters in Buncombe County elected a sheriff who opposed cooperating with ICE through its Secure Communities program, an iteration of 287(g).
To many, it felt like 287(g) might be in its last days not just in Henderson County, but in all of North Carolina.
That feeling wouldn’t last.
‘A Dark Time Here In Hendersonville’
ICE’s reaction to the progressive upwelling came swiftly, with massive raids targeting homes and workplaces in the so-called “non-cooperative” counties where sheriffs had declined to continue 287(g). Over the course of just a few days in February 2019, ICE detained more than 200 people across the state.
Sean Gallagher, director of the ICE Atlanta field office, said at a press conference that the raids were the “direct result of some of the dangerous policies that some of our county sheriffs have put into place.”
ICE also launched a propaganda campaign “to alert the public of at-large immigration violators who may pose a public safety threat to the community” that included dozens of massive billboards around the Charlotte and Asheville areas and a website shaming specific sheriffs who did not partner with the agency. They posted mugshots of mostly Latino-appearing immigrants: “CRIMINAL ALIEN,” they warned, “MAY BE RELEASED INTO YOUR COMMUNITY.”
By the time Griffin took office, Henderson was one of a handful of North Carolina counties still actively cooperating with ICE. Griffin wasn’t ready to pull out of the agreement. But he also wasn’t ready to endorse staying in, either.
A statement he made at a county board of commissioners meeting in March 2019 aimed to dispel what he saw as “misinformation” about how officers operated. He emphasized that officers only examined someone’s immigration status after they had been arrested and detained in the county jail for a crime; his officers couldn’t go out explicitly looking for undocumented immigrants.
“The surest way to keep the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office from looking into a person’s background, including their immigration status, is to avoid committing a crime that will bring them into the Henderson County Jail,” he wrote in his prepared statement.
But Griffin also pointed to financial concerns with the program. Though the federal agency reimbursed for the costs of transportation and detention, the sheriff’s office had to shoulder costs such as the salaries for officers who were specially trained by the 287(g) program. He called 287(g) “burdensome to the operation of the jail and taxpayers.”
In the midst of this, ICE continued its raids throughout North Carolina. That was making life increasingly difficult for Henderson’s Latino community, who questioned each day whether ICE might raid their neighborhood or workplace. ICE’s presence in the county was already strong due to a regional field office in downtown Hendersonville, across the street from Pardee Hospital.
Sergio Fernandez, former executive director of the Latino Advocacy Coalition in Henderson County, also known as El Centro, remembers driving by the ICE office and counting the number of vehicles, trying to gauge whether they were planning a raid that day. Did an extra SUV or two mean another raid was imminent? Fernandez didn’t know for sure, but he mentally logged the changes just in case.
Fernandez also helped run a hotline for undocumented people concerned for their safety, along with Asheville-based non-profit CIMA. They were getting dozens of calls from people who were afraid of driving to work, of picking their kid up from school, of attending a doctor’s appointment.
Undocumented people avoided main streets and stuck to reliable routes, Fernandez said, if they even left the house at all. He delivered groceries to the homes of people who were too scared to risk coming into contact with ICE or sheriff’s deputies.
Residents alerted each other over WhatsApp whenever they saw any black SUVs on the road—suspected ICE vehicles. Volunteers were dispatched to trail the vehicles and report on their activities.
“It was a dark time here in Hendersonville,” said Garcia-McCammon, who also tracked ICE vehicles to document their activities. “Families were not sending their kids to school, because they were afraid if somebody got picked up in the family that they [the kids] would come home and their parents would be gone.”
That spring, Garcia-McCammon went to speak with Griffin, along with other concerned immigrant advocates.
“He told us, ‘We are not involved in helping ICE do this work,” she recalled.
It wasn’t untrue. It was ICE leading the charge on these raids. But the persistence of the 287(g) contract also hung over Henderson County. Even if undocumented residents didn’t get caught in an ICE raid, local sheriff’s deputies could still stop or detain them for any minor infraction, and they could eventually be deported.
Fernandez, who was once undocumented himself, says he drove differently in Henderson County: cautiously, on alert, because it felt like there were “more chances to be policed.”
Even though he was a legal citizen at that point, he could feel the tension draining from his body when he crossed over into Buncombe County, where there wasn’t the possibility of a traffic stop escalating to ICE. This fear is common in the immigrant communities he works with, he said, and the 287(g) contract is a big reason why.
“It was building all this fear into our community,” Garcia-McCammon said. “ICE had a presence in Hendersonville. The police obviously had a presence. There was no space that felt safe.”
A Post 9/11 Boom
When Henderson County first joined the 287(g) program in the summer of 2008 under former Sheriff Rick Davis, it was among a wave of law enforcement agencies signing up.
“North Carolina had a stronghold of folks who were early adopters of these agreements and very excited about them,” said Felicia Arriaga, a sociologist at Appalachian State University who studies immigration enforcement and grew up in Henderson County.
Henderson County was a prime target because ICE wanted to create a stronghold in western North Carolina, according to county meeting minutes Arriaga included in her research. The agency hoped to establish a “hub and spoke” model, where participating sheriff’s offices could support neighboring counties with their expertise and immigration enforcement.
At that point, the counties entering into 287(g) contracts were located along I-40 or I-85, or were urban areas experiencing rapid population growth. Though Henderson County is rural, its proximity to interstate highways and Asheville made it a desirable outpost.
Arriaga noted a 2018 board of commissioners meeting where Davis said, “ICE cannot support 100 individual 287(g) programs across the state.” Instead, Henderson “would be actively supporting the counties of Transylvania, Buncombe, Polk, Rutherford, Haywood, McDowell, Madison, and Yancey,” according to Davis. That put the county at the center of an important historical shift in the dynamics between local agencies and federal immigration enforcement.
It had previously been uncommon for state and local officers to play any role in immigration enforcement outside of serious criminal offenses. Immigration law was considered niche, complicated, and not within the purview of local criminal enforcement.
This started changing with the “war on drugs” in the early 1980s, as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began launching regional task forces. One of these was Operation Pipeline, which trained state police and highway patrol officers to “interdict” vehicles that could be carrying drugs based on characteristics of drug traffickers, mainly based on stereotypes of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.
At the same time, Congress expanded which crimes could disqualify an immigrant from legally remaining in the U.S. These changes shifted the focus of immigration enforcement from ports of entry and borders to the interior of the U.S. Importantly, it also conflated immigrants, especially Mexicans, with criminals.
These two ideas culminated in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which among other things, created the 287(g) statute. Now, there was a legal basis for deputizing local law enforcement to handle certain immigration functions. But no cooperative agreements were actually put into place until after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Attorney General John Ashcroft encouraged them as a way to help with federal counterterrorism efforts.
The first 287(g) agreements were specific and targeted. The state of Florida entered one to train a domestic security task force to investigate potential terrorist threats. Alabama deputized state troopers to go to Department of Motor Vehicle offices “to review suspicious identity documents.” And Los Angeles County used the program to train “custody assistants,” who identified undocumented immigrants after they had been convicted of crimes.
But North Carolina sheriffs pioneered using 287(g) agreements as localized dragnets for federal immigration enforcement. Sheriff Jim Pendergraph of Mecklenburg County led the way, beginning in May 2006. Through this agreement, his office explicitly targeted all undocumented residents, not just the ones convicted of serious crimes.
“So many illegal immigrant criminals have been identified through my 287(g) program, it is causing me a jail space problem,” Pendergraph testified before Congress just months after beginning the program. His testimony exemplified the mainstream conservative argument that 287(g) was a matter of homeland security; undocumented immigrants are a threat to the country and its laws through their very presence, describing them as “illegal” or “criminal.”
At that time, immigration was rising as a hot-button national concern. In 2006, President George W. Bush had pushed Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but the efforts failed and sharply divided Democrats and Republicans, who only a decade prior had largely agreed on most immigration issues.
Latinos turned out in droves across the country to protest a proposed bill in Congress that would further criminalize immigration instead of enacting comprehensive reform. This included North Carolina, where immigrant workers at restaurants, hotels, construction sites, factories, and farms abandoned work to protest in Charlotte. But no meaningful reform followed.
Without immigration reform at the federal level, cities and counties attempted to enact their own policies. In Henderson County, residents formed the “Blue Ribbon Committee on Illegal Immigration” to analyze the impact of illegal immigration on the county and report what actions the local government could take.
Across the country, other cities and countries experimented with different legal measures. Hazelton, Pennsylvania received national media attention for a series of ordinances “designed to make it more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the city.” These included restrictions on employing or housing undocumented immigrants. But the ACLU challenged these ordinances in court and won.
In the wake of Hazelton, it became apparent that cities and counties couldn’t pass restrictive ordinances without risking being sued for millions of dollars. So, local and state politicians had to find some other legal basis for enacting immigration policies. The 287(g) contracts fit the bill: a legal statute permitting state and local agencies to perform the duties of federal immigration enforcement.
So, when the Blue Ribbon Committee in Henderson County finally released its report, chief among the recommendations was that the sheriff should “receive special immigration enforcement status from the federal government.” Davis entered the county into its first 287(g) contract the following year.
The 2008 recession intensified the debate, as opponents framed immigrants as a strain on the system. The 287(g) contracts, on the other hand, were highlighted as a boon, promising to infuse local budgets with federal funding.
In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole touted the 287(g) program during her 2008 campaign for reelection to the U.S. Senate. In her first commercial, Davis and other sheriffs from across the state thanked her for giving law enforcement federal resources to crack down on illegal immigration, referring to the fact that as senator, Dole had sponsored multiple amendments that increased funding for 287(g) contracts.
At the same time, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association backed bills in the state legislature expanding the responsibilities of jails and prisons to determine detainees’ immigration status. They also successfully won more funding from the state for training, technical assistance, contract negotiation, and labor costs.
“North Carolina’s General Assembly has realized the potential benefit of 287(g) to its communities and has granted funds to the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association for the past two years to help sheriffs combat illegal immigration,” wrote North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association President Eddie W. Caldwell in a 2009 article for Popular Government.
Davis was quoted in the article declaring that the program is necessary to fight the “crime that accompanies any large-scale immigration.”
There was some backlash to the program in Henderson County, but public comments mostly lauded the sheriff and 287(g).
A coalition in support of immigrants’ rights called for a reexamination of the program, presenting data and testimony that questioned its cost, effectiveness in fighting serious crime, and impact on immigrant communities at a 2010 board of commissioners meeting. “Fear is created in the community when you can’t go to the police because of fear of being deported,” one immigrant testified.
“I respect the right of pro-criminal groups to exercise their constitutional rights and vote against me,” Davis responded.
Davis resigned from office at the end of 2011, citing mental health concerns. McDonald was appointed as interim sheriff, beginning in 2012, and then elected to the office in 2014. McDonald participated in the constitutional sheriff movement, which advocates for the principle that sheriffs are vested with autonomous authority to determine what the law is, and enjoyed close relationships with the local Tea Party.
McDonald’s six years in office spanned a shift in how the federal government used the 287(g) statute. They stopped explicit support for checkpoints and targeted patrols and instead focused on post-arrest immigration enforcement, whether that be in the form of jail interviews, warrant servicing, or working with federal databases to check and log individuals’ citizenship status.
McDonald renewed the 287(g) contract with ICE four times, and participated in 724 removals—the third highest of any North Carolina county, behind only the much more populous Wake and Mecklenburg.
Many saw Griffin’s election in 2018 as an unprecedented chance to allow the 287(g) contract to expire.
Expiration Or Affirmation?
The newly inaugurated Griffin questioned whether renewing the 287(g) contract was redundant: ICE already had an office in Hendersonville and could issue detainers for anyone his office arrested. Even without a 287(g) contract, a sheriff could cooperate with those detainers. Plus, letting it expire would save his office money.
But 287(g) contracts had become a political litmus test. Trump made collaborations between sheriffs and ICE a cornerstone of his immigration policy, and one of his first executive orders directed the Department of Homeland Security to enter into more 287(g) agreements. Over the course of his presidency, the number of cooperative agreements under 287(g) quadrupled, largely through rural- and suburban-county sheriffs. The National Sheriffs’ Association thanked Trump for his “affirmation of the 287(g) program.”
That was the context as the Henderson County’s Board of Commissioners received both Griffin’s statement and public comment on the 287(g) contract.
At the public meeting, the county commissioners were not unanimous in their stance on whether to continue the 287(g) program, but they did repeatedly express commitments to keeping criminals out of the county and ensuring public safety above all else. Three out of the five commissioners pledged to contribute whatever money was needed to continue the 287(g) program, which they estimated to be around $250,000 a year.
So, in June 2019, Griffin renewed his office’s contract with ICE. In a video posted to YouTube, he claimed that the 287(g) agreement would “provide law enforcement the necessary tools to identify and remove a criminal element that is present within our communities.”
Griffin’s office emailed the same 2019 video to The Assembly in response to a request for an interview. “His stance has not changed since taking office,” wrote Henderson County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Johnny Duncan.
The effort to end the 287(g) contract had failed.
“When you look at the conversation about the division in the country, you can go into Henderson County and see it,” said Stefanía Arteaga, the regional immigrants’ rights strategist for the ACLU. In her view, the county’s debate over 287(g) was the classic contest between white voters and undocumented workers.
“I believe that Sheriff Griffin meant well, that he was going to get rid of 287(g),” said Fernandez. “But he was naive.”
To Fernandez, El Centro’s former executive director, the decision seemed less about the battle between Griffin and the county commissioners and more about Griffin realizing reelection would require appeasing the county’s conservative voters.
“He didn’t realize how much politics there would be behind that decision,” said Fernandez, “how much pushback there would be.”
A Force Multiplier
In the time between when Griffin took office in early 2019 and March 2022, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office logged 124 encounters under the 287(g) program, according to records The Assembly obtained.
Of those encounters, 36 percent were traffic offenses such as driving under the influence, failure to maintain lane control, reckless driving, and speeding. The rest are split between charges of domestic and sexual violence (27 percent), drug-related crimes (17 percent), and miscellaneous crimes (19 percent).
The same month that Griffin decided to renew the 287(g) contract, he made another big announcement: He’d hired Barbosa to serve as an outreach coordinator to the Latino community. In the role, she would be “helping the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office to overcome the cultural and language barriers in our community,” the press release said.
“We’ve completely changed the whole department when it comes to serving the Latino community,” Barbosa told The Assembly. “We’ve got a Facebook page. We’ve got our mobile app in Spanish. We’ve got nonprofits listed to help people. If people didn’t trust us, the first thing that comes out of their mouth wouldn’t be, ‘I’m not documented, but I need your help,’ but people regularly come into the office and do that.”
To her, it feels like a significant change.
“I remember being younger and undocumented, and my parents saying we couldn’t drive after a certain hour because of checkpoints,” she said. “When I started driving as a teenager, they’d warn me, ‘You’re not legal here, you have to be careful.’”
Today, she said, undocumented people going about their lives normally have no reason to fear police. In her opinion, if anything is drumming up fear in the community, it’s the misinformation on social media about the sheriff’s office’s role in immigration enforcement.
For its part, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office insisted it did not contribute to this climate of fear. “We work very hard to ensure that no person, regardless of sex, nationality or resident status lives in fear in our county,” Duncan told The Assembly.
But Arteaga of the ACLU disagrees.
“If you ask me, you don’t really solve a problem just because you’re going to put somebody up there who looks like you,” Arteaga said. “You’re still getting deported.”
Today, 287(g) is at a critical juncture. President Joe Biden ran on a platform that included ending these agreements, but his administration has not provided any clear directives on the existing contracts, and has continued to allocate more than $20 million to the program.
This stalemate bears out at the local level. According to public records, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office has released eight of the 11 people it logged in jail for immigration violations so far this year. In 2019, the office released only 10 of the 52 people it detained.
Still, the continued existence of 287(g) agreements and their ability to be a “force multiplier” for ICE means that some advocates for ending the program are left feeling like little has changed. Fifteen counties in North Carolina still participate in some form of a 287(g) contract.
For Arriaga, who has both lived with the 287(g) contract in place and dedicated her life to studying it, the questions are bigger than whether Henderson County should exit the agreement. It’s about how the program has shaped who is considered a threat.
Arriaga’s family lives between several of the ICE billboards warning of the “CRIMINAL ALIEN” threat. She would see them anytime she drove in Henderson County.
“Putting those billboards up continues to put images in front of you that brown people are criminals,” said Arriaga. “And that fear is unbalanced given the amount of crime that the group actually commits.”
Now the billboards have been painted over with new advertisements. But Arriaga and other immigrant advocates say the sense of fear remains.
Garcia-McCammon, the nonprofit founder, for her part, has modest hope. She believes that undocumented immigrants are now more likely to take advantage of services at the sheriff’s office because there is someone who speaks Spanish, whose job it is to help them feel welcome. But that doesn’t erase the office’s history and ongoing cooperation with ICE.
“There’s still fear,” she said. “I don’t think that fear is going to go away from one year to the next … It’s far too ingrained in this place.”
Katie Jane Fernelius, a graduate of Duke, is a journalist and radio producer based in New Orleans.
Benito Garcia Garcia is a freelance journalist and photographer in western North Carolina and, as of March 2022, also works as a bilingual legal assistant with Pisgah Legal Services. The bulk of the reporting for this story took place during 2021.