Sheriff sends illegal immigrants home
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.”
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.