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Undocumented workers arrested in Jackson traffic checkpoint now free again

Federal authorities have dropped deportation proceedings against 10 Latino men, all suspected illegal immigrants, who were arrested at a Jackson County license checkpoint in May.

Immigration groups claim the roadside checkpoint by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was an improper dragnet aimed at capturing undocumented immigrants. Legally, law enforcement can conduct roadside checkpoints, but only for limited purposes. This particular checkpoint was criticized as overreaching.

“Do they have the right to enforce traffic laws? Yes,” said Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney representing 10 men arrested that day. “But, it shouldn’t be used as a pretext to put people into deportation proceedings.”

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office conducted the traffic checkpoint during morning commute hours May 16 between Cullowhee and Cashiers — a time and place when Latino workers are known to travel in large numbers up the mountain to Cashiers, where they pick up work as day laborers in the construction trade or service industry.

Fifteen people were detained, many for the minor traffic violation of driving without a license, and 10 of them were eventually placed in deportation proceedings.

The sheriff’s office had arranged for federal immigration officers to be on-site at the checkpoint, fueling criticism that the checkpoint was merely a pretense for checking immigration status.

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Jackson Sheriff Jimmy Ashe denied this allegation. When reached by phone last week, Major Shannon Queen, a spokesman for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, refused to comment on the news that the charges were dropped.

Immigration charges and resulting deportation — as well as any decision to drop those charges — are handled by federal agencies and beyond the purview of local law enforcement.

The inquiry into Jackson County traffic checkpoints is far from over, however. The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is still investigating claims of racial profiling.

“Some very serious questions were raised about whether racial profiling was involved,” said Rosenbluth, with the N.C. Immigrant Right’s Project. “From day one, our position is that their arrest was unconstitutional.”

Rosenbluth said he believes the charges were dropped against the 10 men because of the murky nature of their arrest. But also because federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, has made it clear that they are only targeting illegal immigrants who are considered criminals.

Because its caseload of illegal immigrants is so large, ICE must pick its battles, therefore illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding don’t always end up being deported.

One of the men arrested at the Jackson County checkpoint, Antonio Garcia, said being released from deportation proceedings was “the best gift I could have asked for.”

“I am still trying to convince myself that this nightmare is over,” Garcia said in a news release. “I feel a great relief.”

The Jackson Sheriff’s Office has coordinated with federal immigration officers in two other roadside checkpoints during the last four years. The role of local law enforcement in proactively arresting undocumented workers has been a matter of debate nationally.

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