Saying he is not a racist, Sheriff Terry Johnson announced plans Monday night to work more closely with federal immigration officials, telling county leaders Alamance County has become has become the drug hub of the Southeast.
Johnson asked the county commissioners for 18 more officers in next year’s budget, in part, to stem drug trafficking he said is fueled by Mexican cartels. The Sheriff’s Office has 276 employees now, including 140 sworn officers.
In addition to rejoining the 287(g) program, which lets local agencies perform immigration enforcement, Johnson plans to rent space in the Alamance County Jail to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house detainees being deported. ICE will pay the county about $66 per detainee per night, he said.
“I’m not doing it to make a dime,” he said. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do and to help protect my citizens.”
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Johnson said people ask him how Alamance can be a drug-trafficking hub.
“We have two major interstates, 85 and 40,” he said. “We’ve tightened down on those areas with our special ops and our drug enforcement administration, but guess what? … They drop their drugs here, they can go (highways) 62, 49, 54, 87, 61 ... to distribute their narcotics.”
To underscore his point, Johnson’s presentation included photos of bodies of victims of drug-related murders.
“Anybody that has a weak stomach,” he said before the first slide, “you may want to leave.”
From 2007 to 2012, the Sheriff’s Office worked with ICE through the 287 (g) program, leading to a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice against Johnson for discriminatory practices against Latinos., The News & Observer has previously reported.
An investigation alleged deputies were four to 10 times more likely to stop Latinos than non-Latino drivers. It accused the sheriff and his office of fostering a culture of bias toward Latinos, using racial epithets like, “Go out there and catch me some Mexicans” and “Go out there and get me some of those taco-eaters.”
A judge dismissed the case in 2015, saying the U.S. government failed to prove discrimination against Latinos, The News & Observer reported. The Department of Justice appealed the judge’s decision but then dropped the suit after settling with the sheriff in 2016.
Commissioners moved Monday night’s meeting from the Alamance County Office Building to the county’s courthouse, and people in support of and critical of the sheriff packed the main courtroom almost to capacity.
Jose Perez, who owns a small tire shop in Burlington, said he was robbed five times in 2007, but never reported the crimes because of his fear of 287 (g).
“We all want to have a safe community in Alamance,” Perez told the commissioners, speaking in Spanish as an interpreter translated. “We all want it to be safe to report a crime in Alamance, and that is why ICE should not be anywhere in Alamance.”
Johnson said his department never asks crime victims if they are here illegally.
Bruce Nelson of Graham, said that if the county was going to re-introduce ICE involvement, the commissioners should have brought it up as an agenda item and discussed it in front of the public.
Gary Williamson of Snow Camp supported Johnson. “There are neighboring counties that are letting lawlessness that we just don’t think in Alamance County fits our way of life,” he told the commissioners. “Do not let political correctness take over Alamance County.”
Johnson bridled at accusations that he is motivated by race.
“Out here, people are saying the sheriff is a racist,” he said. “I’m not a racist. By George, I want my citizens protected.”