Towns differ on illegal aliens
Carrboro wouldn't act on deportation

Patrick Winn, Staff Writer
CARRBORO - Mayor Mark Chilton said an illegal immigrant from Iran would not have been detained by police in his town.

In the wake of the arrest of Sima Fallahi, a Carrboro mother, two weeks ago in Chapel Hill, Chilton affirmed his town's hands-off policy.

"We would not have detained her," he said. "We're not doing [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's] job for them."

Carrboro's policy instructs police and town staff to ignore deportation orders on immigrants who are here illegally but not wanted for other crimes.

But even the town's police chief concedes that some officers are uncomfortable with that approach, which an immigration agent said could be considered obstruction.

Fallahi, who never renewed her 1985 student visa, is in the Mecklenburg County jail. Two weeks ago, she entered the Chapel Hill Police Department and applied for a permit needed to sell art in public.

The permit, which allows door-to-door sales, requires a criminal record check. Her driver's license number turned up Fallahi's "final order of deportation" status.

The Chapel Hill Police Department, like Carrboro's, has distanced itself from immigration enforcement, said Chief Gregg Jarvies.

"We were the first in the Triangle, even before Carrboro, to say we would not enforce immigration rules," he said.

But while Chapel Hill officers don't ask about immigration status, they won't ignore detainment orders they come across on routine background checks such as Fallahi's.

Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy backed that practice Tuesday.

"When we ask other law enforcement agencies for help, they could say, 'We're ignoring your warrants because you're ignoring ours,' " Foy said. Nevertheless, he said he expects the Town Council to review its policy because of the Fallahi case.

Carrboro Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison sides with her town's approach.

"As a citizen," she said, "I'm dismayed that we would take a person -- in this case a mother of a fifth-grade child -- away when the only thing she's done is fail to keep her immigration status recent."

Not all officers agree, she said.

"They want to uphold the law, and they're uncomfortable ... with not cooperating with other law enforcement," she said.

Hutchison emphasized that neither she nor her officers would look away from a person who posed a clear threat to public safety.

Still, Carrboro's approach seems to "verge on obstruction," said Tom O'Connell, resident agent-in-charge at a Cary Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

"Law enforcement has an obligation to carry out the warrants of other agencies, state, local and federal," he said. "You can't just ignore them."

Like Chapel Hill, the Durham and Raleigh police departments don't seek out immigration offenders or ask crime victims about their status.

"There's a federal agency responsible for that, and we let them do their job," said spokesman Jim Sughrue of the Raleigh Police Department. Still, officers act on outstanding immigration warrants just like any other agency's warrants, he said.

Carrboro town officials have backed Fallahi's release. In the past five years, she has been a downtown fixture, an artist with work hung in town hall and a PTA mom at Carrboro Elementary School.

U.S. Rep. David Price, at the urging of Chilton and state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, has asked that Fallahi receive a full hearing.

Fallahi's daughter, Leila, 11, is now living with a couple Fallahi introduced one year ago.
Staff writer Patrick Winn can be reached at 932-8742 or