Sheriff Terry Johnson, center, talks with resident Charles Smith, right,… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)
GRAHAM, N.C. — In this southern mill town, tortillas and bolillos are as common as Carolina barbecue sandwiches. Spanish-language advertisements tout Latino-owned restaurants, garages, churches and used-tire lots, and banners lining the downtown streets proclaim, "Preserving our heritage — promoting our future."
But protesters who gathered downtown last month in Court Square, near the statue of a Confederate soldier, delivered a different message: "We Want Respect" and "Terry Johnson Stop Lying."
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson's approach to fighting illegal immigration has raised tensions among Latinos in the community. A two-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, released in September, found that Johnson and his deputies had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging "in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos."
Federal officials recently canceled a federal-county immigration policing program, and the standoff is further dividing a community already split by the area's shifting demographics. Alamance County in 1990 had 736 Latinos, and whites made up 80% of the population. Latinos now number 17,000; whites have dropped to 66%.
Latinos have been drawn to Graham by its low-cost housing and its proximity to construction and service-sector jobs in Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.
The Justice Department report said Johnson supports "an egregious pattern of racial profiling." It said he referred to Latinos as "taco-eaters," ordered deputies to arrest Latino motorists in instances when other drivers only got citations, and once said Mexicans don't mind having sex with 12-year-old girls. Latinos have since held news conferences and rallies and faced off against residents who shout their support for the sheriff.
Johnson, 62, a larger-than-life lawman prone to bombastic statements, denies using the slur and says his comment about 12-year-old girls was a reference to Mexican criminals who ran a prostitution ring.
In a brief statement, Johnson denied any profiling or racist remarks. "The Obama administration has decided to continue to wage war on local law enforcement," he wrote.
Johnson is not giving interviews because of "a threat of litigation," said his lawyer, S.C. Kitchen, who sent a letter to the Justice Department accusing it of "a libelous political attack" that is "full of factual inaccuracies … based on newspaper articles, rumors and gossip."
Kitchen cited 2011 county statistics showing that Johnson's deputies arrested only 64 of the 466 Spanish-speaking drivers they stopped. Of the others, half got citations and half received verbal warnings. The Justice Department said Johnson's deputies were 4 to 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latinos.
Rosalba Santiago Sagrero, 29, an illegal immigrant in Graham, believes she was targeted solely because she is Latino when she was stopped by a deputy in March and led away in handcuffs to face possible deportation. She hired a lawyer, and an immigration judge dismissed a charge of driving without a license, ruling that the sheriff's order for her to appear in court was "improvidently issued."
Suyapa Mejia-Guevara, a legal U.S. resident, said she was humiliated when a deputy recently stopped her and suggested her driver's license was invalid because the photo didn't look like her. The license is valid, said Mejia-Guevara, who was not charged.
"There's a very clear pattern of [Latinos] getting targeted and arrested for minor traffic violations," said attorney Marty Rosenbluth, director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project, who has represented Latinos arrested by Johnson's deputies.
Alamance County Atty. Clyde Albright said the only motive the Justice Department and immigrant rights activists have is to embarrass the sheriff and end the immigration policing program.
"The sheriff has always been a figure who draws the bait," said Madison Taylor, editor of the local Times-News. In a recent column, Taylor wrote: "He's a white Southern sheriff prone to saying things every so often a white Southern sheriff shouldn't say."
Johnson, a former state investigator, is serving his third term. In his first campaign in 2002, he ran an ad that featured "Twilight Zone" theme music and railed against "aliens": "They've filled our criminal courtrooms and invaded our schools. They sponge off the American taxpayer by clogging our welfare lines and our hospital emergency rooms."
That same year, Johnson arrested more than 100 Latinos at a local Division of Motor Vehicles office and accused them of using phony documents to obtain driver's licenses. In 2004, according to Hannah Gill, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Johnson proposed that deputies visit the homes of people with Latino surnames to root out voter fraud.