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Pendergraph ties to prison industry raise questions 

It's almost as if Jim Pendergraph is running a stealth campaign for a seat on the County Commission. The former Mecklenburg County sheriff comes across in public meetings as an affable critic of wasteful spending and county government's management, and is likely to spend much more time talking about neighborhood safety than, say, getting tough on illegal immigrants. But it's another Jim Pendergraph, or rather another aspect of the man, that's more familiar to many who are involved in the immigration battles roiling the nation.

In his sheriff days, and afterward, as executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of State and Local Coordination, Pendergraph often came across as a rough-tough immigrant hunter who meant business.

Before taking the ICE job, Pendergraph signed Mecklenburg County onto ICE's 287(g) program, which lets local law enforcement check the immigration status of individuals arrested for supposedly serious crimes; those suspects are then transferred to private prisons before being deported. (Note that there is strong evidence that, contrary to the letter of the law, many if not a majority of illegal immigrants who wind up being deported as a result of 287(g) were initially brought in for lesser crimes such as public drunkenness or jaywalking). Under that program, Pendergraph claimed, his department had identified more than 3,000 illegal immigrants. "It is getting people out of our community who are committing crimes who had no business being here anyway," Pendergraph boasted to one reporter. He told another, "We're protecting people from illegal immigrants driving drunk and killing our families and selling drugs to our children." He forgot "raping our women" and "stealing our cattle," but then a sheriff can only scare so many folks at once.

The tough talk continued during Pendergraph's tenure at ICE. In August 2008, for instance, at a conference of police and sheriffs, Pendergraph was telling lawmen about the 287(g) program, when he delivered this chilling statement: "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear."

It was a shocking statement, particularly in light of recent controversies over "disappearing" suspects in the War on Terror, not to mention the long association of the term "disappeared" with human rights abuses around the world. One person at the police conference, Sarnata Reynolds of Amnesty International, wrote about Pendergraph's speech in AI's 2009 report "Jailed Without Justice." In an interview, she later said, "It was almost surreal being there, particularly being someone from an organization that has worked on disappearances for decades in other countries. I couldn't believe he would say it so boldly, as though it weren't anything wrong."

Pendergraph may be playing it coy on the campaign trail, but there's every reason to expect him to push for more stringent actions against undocumented immigrants if he lands a County Commission seat. When Commissioner Bill James recently proposed that the county's Department of Social Services provide a list of all "illegals" who have come to DSS for Medicaid for their children (a proposal that had to be modified since the DSS actions it prescribed are illegal), Pendergraph supported James' efforts. He couched his support in vague terms about "national security," (the conflation of illegal immigrants with terrorists being the far right's latest slip down the slope of paranoia), but the message was clear.

Early in his anti-"illegals" efforts, Pendergraph worked with Sue Myrick to bring a 1,500-bed "immigrant jail" to Charlotte; when that was rejected, they tried Gaston County, which also nixed the idea. If Pendergraph becomes a commissioner, the prison issue, as well as the DSS hubbub, could come up again. Why? Pendergraph, who says he runs a private consulting business, is currently selling his services to Keith & Keith Corrections (KKC), a Charlotte-based company that provides maintenance services for jails and prisons, including those in Mecklenburg County. In addition, Pendergraph's campaign has reported receiving at least $2,000, so far, from the owner of KKC.

This year has seen much controversy over cozy relationships between the private prison industry, prison suppliers, and tough-on-immigration politicians, most notably in the revelation that two of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's top aides had close ties with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), America's top private prison company, which stood to make a fortune from that state's harsh new immigration law.

We are not saying that Pendergraph has a trick up his sleeve. We are saying, however, that, as the candidate himself said in another context, "perception is truth," and the perception that he is neck-deep in the prison industry is one he needs to deal with forthrightly. Before we vote on Tuesday, it'd be nice to know just how far down the anti-"illegals" road Pendergraph wants to push the county.

Special thanks to Rhiannon Bowman for invaluable research assistance.

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