Local News

Wake County Sheriff: Manpower Lacking To Track Illegal Immigrants

Posted August 16, 2005 6:07 a.m. EDT

— Reacting to the death of a North Carolina man in a drunken driving accident involving an illegal immigrant, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick unveiled a proposal Monday that she said would make local police more responsible for tracking illegal immigrants.

Myrick named the Scott Gardner Act after a Mount Holly resident who was killed in an apparent drunken driving wreck July 16 in Brunswick County. Ramiro Gallegos, of Mexico, convicted of driving while intoxicated three times but never deported, faces second-degree murder charges in the wreck.

The legislation would require all state and local law enforcement agencies to report immigration status, deportation orders and failures to appear to the FBI's National Crime Information Center database within 30 days of the incident.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrision, who supports Myrick's proposal, says the real challenge comes with what federal agents, already short-staffed, do with the information.

"It's not going to get any better until they know that we're looking for them," Harrison said. "If they're here illegal, they're going to get deported. Now, they just basically laugh about it and go on about their business."

Harrison says he tries to keep records of all the illegal immigrants who pass through his jail.

Unless they commit violent, high-profile crimes, though, Harrison doubts federal authorities will ever deport them.

"It's hard to get them to do anything, and I'm not saying that in a bad way," Harrison said. "They just don't have the manpower."

And until federal authorities get the people and the priority to take action, Harrison says he is skeptical.

"Somebody's going to have to do something," Harrison said. "We in the local ranks -- we don't have the manpower to do the federal government's work."

Local immigration officials were not available for comment Tuesday. In the past, however, they have agreed with Harrison. They simply do not have enough agents to handle all the cases.

According to Myrick's proposal, officials would also have to enter all driving while impaired convictions into the database. DWIs, a misdemeanor, would become a deportable offense and judges would have access to national data for better sentencing, Myrick said.

"No more excuses," Myrick said Monday. "No more endless appeals. You're drunk. You're driving. You're illegal. You're deported. Period."

The Scott Gardner Act is one of several initiatives Myrick announced Monday, including creating an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the Charlotte region, adding more deportation officers and increasing fines from $250 to $10,000 for businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

North Carolina should not have to rely upon the regional Atlanta office for decisions, Myrick said.

"Atlanta does not represent our best interests," Myrick said. "They are slow to respond and quick to seize the manpower slated for our area for themselves."

North Carolina has one deportation officer and an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants.

William Gheen, president of Raleigh-based Americans for Legal Immigration, a group that endorses Myrick, said lawmakers should focus on spending the money and enforcing existing laws, including 1996 legislation giving local police authority to arrest illegal immigrants.

This year, the U.S. House approved $635 million for more than 700 border patrol agents, immigration investigators and detention officers and 1,950 detention beds. The House also approved $61 million for border security technology and $40 million to train state and local police to enforce immigration laws.

Angeles Ortega, director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, said the possible laws shift focus away from the main problem in Gardner's death: drunken driving.

"Instead of making DWI a felony instead of a misdemeanor, they are going after illegal immigrants," Ortega said.