Sher­iff sends il­le­gal im­mi­grants home

The Charlotte Observer - - FROM PAGE ONE -

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A life of or­der, ser­vice

– “none of them neg­a­tive,” he says.

In Char­lotte, he is one of his county’s most pop­u­lar pub­lic fig­ures, a win­ner of seven con­sec­u­tive elec­tions, with a rep­u­ta­tion around the court­house as an ef­fec­tive ad­min­is­tra­tor and some­thing of an in­no­va­tor, some­one will­ing to see crim­i­nals for more than their crimes.

But with il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, his vi­sion be­comes more brown and white.

“We’ve got mil­lions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants that have no busi­ness be­ing here,” he says.

And: “Th­ese peo­ple are com­ing to our coun­try with­out doc­u­ments, and they won’t even as­sim­i­late.”

And: “This is about home­land se­cu­rity. This is about the sovereignt­y of our coun­try.”

Right now, he sees one im­mi­grant, the over­dose, get­ting pho­tographed and fin­ger­printed – each fin­ger, both thumbs – by an ICE-trained deputy.

Lit­tle is known be­yond his name, Kevin Su Lee. Not Latino, but Korean. Al­though 98 per­cent of il­le­gal im­mi­grants in his jail are Lati­nos, it’s the 2 per­cent, in­clud­ing Lee, that “spook” Pen­der­graph. “He can be car­ry­ing a dirty bomb in a suit­case,” he says, “or there can be two or three of them sep­a­rately car­ry­ing parts to a bomb.”

Be­fore 287(g), he says, there was no way to un­cover such in­ten­tions on a lo­cal level. Now, he is the one who learns their sto­ries, the one who dis­cov­ers the crim­i­nals, the un­doc­u­mented, the re-en­tries.

“Who’s do­ing more than I am?” he says.

Kevin Su Lee’s fin­ger­prints and pho­tos have been de­liv­ered elec­tron­i­cally to Wash­ing­ton, home of the ICE data­base. The re­sults should ar­rive in about five min­utes. “You want to see the jail?” Jim Pen­der­graph says.

Up to the sec­ond floor. Min­i­mum se­cu­rity, then medium, then the med­i­cal unit, each as tidy as the man who hangs up his suit jacket when he gets in his county-owned black Ta­hoe. “I don’t deal well with dirt,” Pen­der­graph says.

He is 56 years old, a Meck­len­burg na­tive, a Demo­crat be­cause that’s what his fam­ily has al­ways been, a suit-and-tie pro­fes­sional with a soft drawl that would fit be­hind any small-town sher­iff’s desk.

He lives near the Steele Creek house where he grew up, on 10 acres where he likes lit­tle more than “push­ing stuff around” on his trac­tor. At work, he is a stick­ler for pre­ci­sion, the boss of 1,369 em­ploy­ees who know he no­tices when their uni­forms are pressed – or not.

It is the life of an ad­min­is­tra­tor, a far cry from the crime mag­a­zines that young Jim Pen­der­graph read on his par­ents’ farm. His fa­ther, Henry, was a law-an­dorder guy, a mil­i­tary po­lice­man in World War II who would have joined the force back home if it would’ve paid enough to sup­port his fam­ily.

Po­lice work was about the only thing Henry’s son wanted to do. Jim Pen­der­graph was in the first class of Cen­tral Pied­mont Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­gram, and he hap­pily en­listed to be an MP in the Viet­nam War. He ended up serv­ing in Ethiopia.

Back home, Pen­der­graph took a beat job on the county po­lice force and found Char­lotte roiled by civil rights ten­sion. He re­mem­bers no per­sonal ob­jec­tion to in­te­gra­tion. It was what Wash­ing­ton had dic­tated. It was his duty to en­force it. “That’s what I did,” he says.

He rose steadily through the county and city po­lice forces – a sergeant by age 30, then field cap­tain, then cap­tain, then even­tu­ally deputy chief for the Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg po­lice. In 1994, when he was 44, friends per­suaded him to run against Sher­iff C.W. Kidd, whose fromthe-hip style had pro­duced an un­der­trained, over­whelmed staff.

“I think Jim brought a dif­fer­ent cul­ture with him from CMPD,” says Dis­trict At­tor­ney Peter Gilchrist. “He’s upped the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the de­part­ment.”

Soon, Pen­der­graph brought more change. His county was grow­ing – and with it his jail pop­u­la­tion. He be­gan to ask ques­tions about the in­mates. How did they get there? How could he stop them from com­ing back?

In 1997, he opened the county’s Work Re­lease and Resti­tu­tion Cen­ter, which taught in­mates work skills and bud­get­ing and put their pay­checks in a sav­ings ac­count. He also beefed up the jail’s vol­un­tary sub­stance­abuse pro­gram, and this year, bond money will build a sher­iff­pro­posed vo­ca­tional cen­ter, com­plete with a green­house to teach in­mates hor­ti­cul­ture.

Pen­der­graph sees prag­ma­tism in his pro­grams – if he can keep an in­mate from fu­ture ar­rest, why not? “You want me to make them tax­pay­ers rather than tax bur­dens?” he says – a line he of­ten uses in speeches around the county.

He ac­knowl­edges there’s some­thing else be­hind his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive approach. It’s a will­ing­ness to see that ev­ery­one doesn’t be­gin with the same ad­van­tages, the same skills, the same back­ground. “We don’t all come from the same sit­u­a­tion,” he says.

His im­mi­gra­tion epiphany

Back at the ICE work­sta­tion, Kevin Su Lee’s data have not yet come back. “A few more min­utes,” says Sgt. Quinn Stansell. Jim Pen­der­graph’s at­ten­tion is else­where. A Latino in his 20s is be­ing led from a hold­ing cell. “What’s his story?” the sher­iff says, to no one in par­tic­u­lar.

Four years ago, Pen­der­graph had his im­mi­gra­tion epiphany. Il­le­gal im­mi­grants made up 15 per­cent of his jail’s pop­u­la­tion, staffers told him, but they knew lit­tle about them, their his­tory, their crim­i­nal record. They were ghosts, and they were walk­ing right out the front door.

Last sum­mer, at a county sher­iff’s as­so­ci­a­tion meet­ing in Michi­gan, he met Mike Corona, sher­iff of Orange County, Calif. “You guys never see any il­le­gal im­mi­grants, do you?” Pen­der­graph re­mem­bers jok­ing, then he told him of Meck­len­burg’s grow­ing prob­lem.

Said Corona: “Do you know what the 287(g) is?”

Pen­der­graph wrote to ICE and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, an ad­vo­cate of tough im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. They bur­rowed through red tape – “He was dogged about it,” Myrick says – and by Novem­ber, the county had its go-ahead.

Pen­der­graph soon learned ex­actly what he sus­pected: “That peo­ple we had ar­rested had been ar­rested be­fore.”

Since April, at least 128 il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Meck­len­burg have been de­ported – and hun­dreds more are pend­ing. Pen­der­graph says neigh­bor­ing sher­iffs chide him half-kid­dingly about un­doc­u­mented aliens flee­ing to their ju­ris­dic­tions. Three Caroli­nas coun­ties – Ala­mance, Gas­ton, and York, S.C. – hope to start the pro­gram next year.

Mean­while, the sher­iff’s own county is strug­gling with the com­plex­ity of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, the un­cer­tainty of its ben­e­fits and costs.

Some ques­tion the value of the sher­iff’s pro­gram, which costs $1 mil­lion a year.

“The amount of money that’s go­ing into this ef­fort – what is it go­ing to ac­com­plish in terms of to­tal crime or the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue?” says Adri­ana Gálvez-Tay­lor, a Latino ad­vo­cate who helped or­ga­nize a Char­lotte im­mi­gra­tion rally in the spring.

Tay­lor and oth­ers worry that 287(g) weak­ens a frag­ile re­la­tion­ship be­tween law en­force­ment and Lati­nos, leav­ing the lat­ter vul­ner­a­ble to crim­i­nals who prey on im­mi­grants’ re­luc­tance to con­tact au­thor­i­ties.

Says Pen­der­graph: “I don’t get it that peo­ple can de­fend the il­le­gal im­mi­grant sta­tus.” He tells crit­ics that il­le­gal im­mi­grants in his jail have been ac­cused of two crimes – the one that got them ar­rested, and the mis­de­meanor of cross­ing the border.

And of sug­ges­tions that his pro­gram might just be­gin round­ing up Lati­nos who have not com­mit­ted that sec­ond crime? He’s not against it. “I just don’t have the re­sources,” he says.

He can’t look the other way

Kevin Su Lee has a sub­stan­tial ICE record – drug con­vic­tions, us­ing two So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers. He once spent seven years in a Vir­ginia prison.

“Even if he’s a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, he’s still de­portable,” says Stansell.

“A good find,” Pen­der­graph says.

On his way out of the jail, the sher­iff no­tices a half-dozen Latino men stand­ing out­side a van in the park­ing garage. An ICE agent tells him they were picked up across North Carolina and are stay­ing overnight be­fore head­ing to At­lanta for re­moval.

“They’ll be back,” Pen­der­graph says, in his Ta­hoe, putting his Ray-Bans on.

Does he think about why that’s so – about what brought them here – as he’s done for years with other in­mates? The sun­glasses come off. “I do,” he says. “I do un­der­stand that.” A pause. “It’s hard for me to sep­a­rate. No one has told me this is a law you don’t have to en­force. No one told me to look the other way.”

No one, in fact, has done much on im­mi­gra­tion, he says. Not the pres­i­dent, not Congress, not any­one who could con­front this is­sue be­fore it’s too late.

The sun­glasses go back on. The sher­iff heads back to work.

“They all talk about it, but no one is do­ing any­thing but talk­ing,” he says. “No one is do­ing any­thing but me.”

DIEDRA LAIRD – [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Sher­iff Jim Pen­der­graph steps out of his of­fice in the Crim­i­nal Courts Build­ing to visit jail em­ploy­ees on Thurs­day. “Who’s do­ing more than I am?” he says of his ef­forts to de­port il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

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