The 287(g) program, a partnership initiative with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is back up for discussion, and Alamance County businesses are speaking out.

Nearly 60 local businesses in the county signed a letter in opposition of reinstating the program, which allows local and state law enforcement to partner with ICE access to databases and initiate the deportation process. Business representatives made their case against reimplementing the program before the Alamance County Board of Commissioners at the beginning of October. 

One of those business owners was Phil Smith, owner of The Oak House. 

“As just a citizen in the community, I think our community is much safer when everybody feels that they have the trust and faith of local law enforcement, and with the program, the immigrant community as a whole, historically and publicly [are] now stating they don’t have that faith,” Smith said.

Smith joined other business owners and attended the Board of County Commissioners meeting on Oct. 2 to state his case on the program, which wasn’t originally on the agenda. Other businesses that signed in opposition to the program include The Fat Frogg, Reverence Farms Cafe and Cookie Gurlie bakery. In a transcript Smith provided to Elon News Network, Smith told county commissioners he worries about the safety of his community if 287(g) were to be reinforced.

“As a business owner, I want my employees and customers to feel safe coming and going from my business, and not to feel as if they may be stopped and interrogated simply because of the color of their skin,” Smith said at the meeting.

In North Carolina, six counties currently have 287(g) agreements, namely Wake, Mecklenburg, Henderson, Gaston, Nash and Cabarrus counties. There are only 78 agreements with law enforcement agencies in 20 states. 

Alamance County previously held a 287(g) agreement from 2007 to 2012. The program ended after the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Alamance County sheriff’s office alleging racial discrimination. 

The case was later dismissed, but the program was suspended. Now Sheriff Terry Johnson is looking to reinstate it. Johnson was unavailable for comment.

After fighting against the program the first time, Smith said people are more prepared to vocally oppose the program after experiencing its previous repercussions.

“There’s a galvanized response now as opposed to last time; it was a couple years into it when we started seeing all the bad things happen. Now I think people are galvanized to say let’s not do that this time – not in our community,” Smith said.

Aldo Hernandez, general manager of La Fiesta Restaurante Mexicano in Burlington, also signed to stand against 287(g). He distinctly remembers the first time the program was put into effect.

“My business is a Mexican restaurant, and of course I get many Hispanic people working for me, and of course I notice the absence of them,” Hernandez said.

When the program began in 2007, Hernandez said many of his employees did not show up for work.

“You can trust that they will come to work. It’s very rare that they don’t show up,” Hernandez said. “Several weeks after that, we found out why.”

Hernandez said his employees were fearful of what could happen to them when the program was put in place. Six years after the program was suspended, he said the fear still lingers.

“I can feel it in my community,” Hernandez said. “As a Muslim-Mexican in my case, I can feel it. The community is in fear now.”

Both Smith and Hernandez have attended conferences and meetings with other local business owners to voice their opposition. Their concerns center around the safety of their clientele. Smith says he wants everyone to feel comfortable talking with law enforcement.

“I think my business is safer when anybody around would call the police if they saw something suspicious,” Smith said. “They don’t want their number traced, they don’t want their house recorded, ... they’re just afraid. I want my neighbors to call the police. I want people to feel free to call an ambulance if they need to.”

Hernandez is concerned for how reimplementing 287(g) will impact the Hispanic community.

“It will hit families, hit the community, and of course the businesses,” Hernandez said.

Robert Byrd, one of the Alamance County Commissioners, said bringing the program back could cause businesses to suffer.

“Having the 287(g) program will reduce economic activity. There are a lot of Latinx businesses. I think that it’s going to chill a lot of the economic activity, because people are going to be fearful to let too much out in the open,” Byrd said.

There is no set deadline for reinstating 287(g), but Byrd plans to vote against the program, citing fears that members of the Latinx community could be racially profiled and a breach of trust between county residents and law enforcement could develop.

“Talking to several members of the Latinx community, they definitely fear that they would be profiled,” Bryd said. “I hate to use the world ‘illegal’ because they’re real people. They just don’t have the proper documentation.”

Once the sheriff agrees to sign on to the program, an agreement is made with Alamance County, which the Board of County Commissioners will approve or disapprove. 

While Smith said he doesn’t think his business will be deeply affected, he is focusing on the larger community by speaking out and does not want his opposition to be about his own business.

“That’s part of my community, that’s part of our tax base, and they’re people and businesses that I care about. I’m fighting for them too. I feel like that’s my responsibility and every citizen’s responsibility,” Smith said. 

For Hernandez, it’s about fighting for the greater Hispanic community, which makes up 12.1 percent of the Alamance County demographic, according to the recent U.S. Census Bureau.

“We follow the rules, we follow the laws,” Hernandez said. “I think this law is unfair. It’s not fair.”