RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Labor Day marks the unofficial start of the fall campaign season and in Wake County, the race for sheriff could turn on the issue of immigration law enforcement and a big switch for one of the top candidates.
The controversial 287g program allowed Wake County deputies to act as federal immigration agents, screening the immigration status of people in the county jail. Undocumented prisoners were turned over to Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents ice for potential deportation. The policy was a big issue in the Wake sheriff's race in 2018. But, as Donnie Harrison fights to get his old job back--he's had a change of heart. Harrison is now pledging not to bring the program back.
When Harrison lost his reelection bid in 2018, it was in some part because of the groundswell of Latino voters who felt the Wake County Sheriff's Office's collaboration with federal immigration officers was targeting and racially profiling people and breaking up families. Four years later, Harrison is reversing his position.
"This will be inclusive. Every person that comes through the jail will be treated the same. There will be no racial profiling," Harrison told ABC11.
From his south Raleigh campaign headquarters, where he's working to get his old job back, the former sheriff told ABC11 he will not work to reinstate the 287g program abandoned by his successor because it's now obsolete. The Republican lawman said he believes the Biden administration is working to undo it. Harrison rejected any skepticism that his reversal is fueled by political expediency.
"They don't know what they're talking about. I don't care about politics," Harrison said. "I'll make that very clear. I don't care about politics. This is about keeping my people safe in this county."
Harrison's reversal aligns him with his opponent in the sheriff's race -- Democrat Willie Rowe, who unseated Sheriff Gerald Baker--the man who previously defeated Harrison--in the Democratic Primary in July.
"I will not reestablish that program. I don't think it's effective," Rowe told ABC11. "There's better options and practices that we can put forth to ensure that the most dangerous people, whether documented or undocumented are kept off the street."
Both men told ABC11 that the alternative to collaborating with ICE will be added reliance on background-check technology at the City-County Bureau of Investigations (CCBI) that ensures anyone detained at the Wake jail is not criminally wanted somewhere else.
Maria Gonzalez and other immigration activists are suspicious of Harrison's change of heart.
"We can't help but also be very skeptical about this," said Gonzalez, policy advocacy manager at La Fuerza NC. "We know that Donnie Harrison will still collaborate with ICE in any other way. We have the right, I think community has a right, to lack trust in the statement."
Harrison's new stance came the same week that North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and GOP Senate candidate Congressman Ted Budd sent a letter to the nation's homeland security chief requesting more information about the immigration status of the Sotelo brothers, the two men arrested in the murder of Wake County Sheriff's deputy Ned Byrd last month. Harrison said he is s not concerned that his change in position puts him at odds with his party.
"No, not when they figure out what I'm doing," Harrison said. "Let's put politics aside. Let's keep people safe. Let me do my job."
Immigration law enforcement and fallout over287g could be a big discussion point, Wednesday night, in a candidates' forum in Raleigh with Harrison and Rowe hosted by el Centro Hispano and Enlace Latino NC.