Sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina | 2018

Wake County sheriff race struggles for media visibility, with 287(g) at stake

Daniel Nichanian

Wake is one of the biggest counties nationwide with a 287(g) agreement. Home to Raleigh, it still leaned Republican when Donnie Harrison was first elected sheriff in 2002. Explosive population growth has upended the county’s politics since then (Hillary Clinton won by 20 percentage points in 2016), but Harrison remains committed to the aggressive enforcement policies he implemented in the 2000s. He has called 287(g), an ICE program he joined in 2007 that allows local deputies to act as federal immigration agents, a “deterrent” against crime; he insists that the traffic checkpoints his office conducts do not affect undocumented immigrants; and he rejects efforts to create alternatives to government-issued identification.

Harrison, a Republican, is up for re-election against Democrat Gerald Baker. Despite all the powers of the sheriff’s office, this election is largely invisible in English-language media, as local observers and a search of local publications confirmed. As of Tuesday, articles detailing Baker’s views on immigration and 287(g) can be found only in Spanish-language publications like Qué Pasa Noticias and La ConexiónUSA.com, which have interviewed Baker.

Baker says that he would eliminate the county’s 287(g) agreement, a position he highlights on social media and in campaign literature. “I know that we are all humans who deserve wonderful lives and I want to support that,” Baker told ConexiónUSA.com. Harrison may not want this issue at the forefront, said Felicia Arriaga, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and a volunteer at El Pueblo, an advocacy group for North Carolina’s Latinx community. Arriaga notes that Harrison hopes to avoid the fate of the sheriffs of Durham and Mecklenburg counties, whose immigration policies contributed to their defeats in May. “This is the most I have heard him not talk about the program,” she said. But she added that county politicians as a whole have been “very quiet” about 287(g) since its implementation in 2008, and county-level law enforcement still demands more attention than it receives.

The Wake County jail has been under scrutiny this month since the death of a woman who died by suicide in detention. The News & Observer reports that the state as a whole could “be on pace to easily exceed the highest annual death toll for inmates in county jails.”

published Oct. 11, 2018 


Update (Nov. 2, 2018): George Joseph reports in The Appeal on the aggressive policing tactics employed by the Wake County sheriff’s department. “Under Harrison’s leadership, Black residents have consistently born the brunt of aggressive policing,” Joseph writes. “Though Black people are just over a fifth of the population, they account for 55 percent of use of force incidents since 2002.”

In addition, immigration policy has been the topic of advertising and community events in the campaign’s final weeks. The ACLU launched an ad in late October that aims to draw attention to the county’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The ad discusses Harrison’s “anti-immigration agenda” and his “special agreement” to “detain immigrants using local resources.” An ACLU official told me that the organization is spending $100,000 on airing the advertisement.


update (Nov. 11): Gerald Baker won the sheriff’s election in Nov. 6, ousting Donnie Harrison.