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BURLINGTON TIMES-NEWS: Protests at jail lead to arrests

April 8th, 2009

By Keren Rivas

Lady Liberty was arrested Wednesday afternoon outside the Alamance County jail, but it's not like she wasn't expecting it.

Sitting outside the detention center, the woman dressed in green holding a torch in her right hand, two marchers wearing mock immigration enforcement gear and four other people, refused to follow Graham police officers' requests to stop blocking the entrance.

It was an act of civil disobedience meant to grab attention. Based on the number of media outlets that flocked to Graham to see the Witness for Peace marchers demonstrate their opposition to the 287(g) program, it worked.

The purpose of the march, said Gail Phares, the event's director, was to make people aware of the negative effect the federal/local illegal immigration enforcement program is having in Alamance County.

"This is not the America that I know," she said. "We are a country of immigrants... The future of this country is Hispanic immigrants."

She said that instead of creating enforcement programs like 287(g) that allow for the persecution of immigrants, what this country needs is a change in trade policies. She said the North American Free Trade Agreement is the root of why people from Mexico and other Latin American countries are migrating to the U.S.

"People are coming because people are hungry," she said, adding that with the march they wanted to say "welcome to immigrants."

As marchers walked from the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington to the Alamance County jail in Graham, they kept chanting: "We shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the water, we shall not be moved."

Waiting for the marchers in Graham were 50 to 70 287(g) supporters, including County Commissioner Tim Sutton. Members of several pro-border security and immigration enforcement groups, such as Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, N.C. Voice and N.C. Listen, were holding signs in support of the program and Sheriff Terry Johnson as the marchers passed by.

William Gheen, president of Raleigh-based ALIPAC, said they decided to hold the event to send a message that marching in the streets and making "unproven accusations" that those law enforcement agencies that deport illegal aliens who break the laws are mean and racist it is not something they were going to tolerate.

"When we heard the illegal aliens and their supporters were coming to town, we knew exactly what they planned to do: They plan to say some other defamatory and false things about our local police and sheriffs... So we wanted to get some support for the police and sheriff."

He said that by being there, they represented the 80-plus percent of Americans who, according to a 2005 poll, feel that local police should enforce immigration laws.

"The 287(g) program in Alamance County is a program that saves lives, saves property and protects our citizens from illegal aliens involved in broader criminal conduct," he said. "Sheriff Johnson is North Carolina's sheriff (Joe) Arpaio. He's been one of the loudest voices on this issue. He's stood with the public and he's stood with the side of the law."

He continued, "We want our police to enforce all laws, especially our immigration laws in the absence of Washington, D.C. doing what they are supposed to be doing."

Minutes before being arrested for disorderly conduct, Lady Liberty, later identified as 44-year-old Audrey B. Schwankl of Pittsboro, walked through the Alamance County jail's parking lot as marchers shouted "Arrest her, arrest her! She is illegal!"

"What happened," she said as two marchers wearing mock immigration enforcement gear approached to handcuff her. "I thought we were here for the poor, for the tired... Your grandparents, they came to me too, and some of them did not come legally either. I, the mother of exile, was here for them and now for you and for the next wave."

She added, "Maybe there is no room for liberty anymore. Liberty has been arrested here in Alamance County."

Besides Schwankl, also arrested and charged with disorderly conduct were the following march participants: Francisco Javier Risso, 37, of Morganton; Patrick M. O'Neill, 53, of Raleigh; Deborah J. Biesack, 44, of Fuquay-Varina; Wendy K. Michener, 52, of Fayetteville; Graymon J. Ward, 24, of Knightdale; and Juan C. Montes Corrales, 44, of Valdese.

The Witness for Peace stop in Alamance County was one of several scheduled as part of the six-day pilgrimage that has been going on for 26 years and always takes place during Holy Week. Their next stop will be Thursday in Greensboro.

Johnson said that though he respected freedom of speech and what each group was saying during the march and demonstration, he did not respect the acts of the seven people who blocked the entrance of the jail.

"They promised us they would follow every order, directive from us," he said. He said that before the marchers arrived at Graham, he received from the media a copy of a list the group had prepared with the names of the people who wanted or were willing to be arrested.

"I felt like they lied to us. They said they were going to be orderly," he said. "They say they are a non-violent, follow-the-law organization," he said, adding that the Graham police had no other choice but to arrest those who were blocking the entrance after several requests to move.

He said the protesters' attitude said a lot about the group's leaders.

On the other hand, Johnson said he was touched by the people who came to the streets to show support and appreciation for him, his office and the 287(g) program.

"It made me feel good," he said." Certainly, being sheriff, I'd begin to worry if I was the only one who worried about criminal activity."

Johnson said he or his deputies do not go out looking for people to process through the program but rather that criminals identify themselves when they violate the law.

He said people who don't support the 287 (g) program "have made us out like a bunch of racists." He added, "We are not racists; we are trying to do the job that I was elected to do."

To read the article in the Burlington Times-News, click here.