Local News

Official: Immigration program puts children at risk

Posted July 30, 2008 4:47 p.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2008 11:36 p.m. EDT

— The chairman of a state panel that reviews child fatalities said Wednesday that a federal program to have local law enforcement help combat illegal immigration could put children at risk.

The so-called 287-G program trains local law enforcement officers in how to determine whether people charged with crimes are in the U.S. illegally and how to file paperwork to begin deportation proceedings.Thirty-eight officers, including 18 Wake County detention officers and 10 Cumberland County sheriff's deputies, recently completed 287-G training.

Tom Vitaglione, chairman of the state Child Fatality Task Force, said he fears that officers who participate in the program will focus more on someone's immigration status when making an arrest than on protecting innocent children involved in a case.

"Incentives are on identification and deportation rather than protection of the children, and that worries us," Vitaglione said. "We just worry that we're gonna have some real tragedies come down the line."

Last month, an Alamance County deputy arrested a Hispanic woman after a traffic stop on Interstate 85, leaving her three children in a car along the highway. Their father picked them up eight hours later.

Authorities said the woman, who identified herself as Maria Chavira Ventura, spoke limited English and was driving with expired tags and without any form of identification, registration or proof of insurance. She gave the deputy an address in Burlington and said someone could pick up the children, authorities said.

Ventura, whose real name is Maria Perez-Mejia, actually was traveling from her home in western North Carolina to Maryland to visit the children's father when she was stopped. A man from her church who was traveling with the family left the children shortly after the deputy took their mother off to jail.

"While a law was not broken, a policy was not abridged, perhaps judgment was clouded," Vitaglione said, blaming the emphasis on immigration enforcement for the mistake.

Perez-Mejia is in the process of being deported. Her three children remain with relatives in the U.S.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, said he sympathizes with the children of illegal immigrants, but said they're not the victims.

"The problems that are being caused for these families and for American citizens are the results of the bad choices and criminal behavior of illegal aliens," Gheen added. "The real victims of illegal immigration are the Americans that are losing their lives, their jobs, their wages."