His Mission, Fame: He Sends Illegal Immigrants Home

Peter St. Onge, Charlotte Observer (NC), Dec. 10, 2006

The inmate is hardly standing, hardly conscious. He barely fills a T-shirt designed to hug him. Overdose, the sheriff’s deputies say.

He was brought into Mecklenburg County jail this weekday morning on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. Like all suspects, he was asked two questions. Were you born in the U.S.? Are you a U.S. citizen?

The answer to each was no.

James Pendergraph had found another one.

More than 960 deportable immigrants have been rooted out from the Mecklenburg jail population since April, when the sheriff became an official partner with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That’s just me, by myself,” he says.

He is the man who sends the illegal immigrants home.

He is the first sheriff east of California to sign up for ICE program 287(g), which trained 12 of his staffers to work full-time identifying and processing deportable immigrants.

He is a bit of a rising star in immigration circles, one who chastised congressmen this summer about illegal immigration, which quickly brought him some national press, which quickly brought him hundreds of e-mails from across the U.S.—”none of them negative,” he says.

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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.

A life of order, service

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.

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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 from-the-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 substance-abuse program, and this year, bond money will build a sheriff-proposed vocational center, complete with a greenhouse to teach inmates horticulture.

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His immigration epiphany

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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.

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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 G·lvez-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.

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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?

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“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.”

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