North Carolina lawmakers try again to make sheriffs help ICE

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina General Assembly began a repeat effort Wednesday to require all sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration agents who are interested in picking up certain jail inmates.

Republican leaders hope past results — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper successfully vetoed versions of the measure twice — will be overturned now that their majorities have increased.

A House judiciary committee voted for a bill nearly identical to legislation that Cooper vetoed last year. It would direct sheriffs in all 100 counties to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with inmates believed to be in the country unlawfully.

The measure, including a somewhat similar bill that Cooper also vetoed in 2019, is the GOP’s response to sheriffs in several urban counties refusing to work closely with ICE on immigration matters. Republicans and their allies say this lets some criminal suspects get released and cause more violence. Some committee speakers highlighted such accounts.

“When a sheriff refuses to cooperate with them (ICE) and allows folks to walk out of their jails, ICE still has to do their job,” said Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and bill sponsor. “But now they have to go out into the community or into the field and try to enforce this law in a much more dangerous environment.”

Current law already tells sheriffs to seek the legal status of certain inmates charged with serious crimes, although it appears to leave wiggle room on whether to contact ICE. In the bill, that latitude is eliminated if sheriffs can’t otherwise determine the immigration status of a person in jail, which now would cover people charged with felony drug or violent crimes.

Critics argue the bill goes too far by requiring compliance with ICE detainer requests. Those detainer requests say ICE agents want to be notified before the release of a defendant whom ICE believes is in the country unlawfully.

The bill would require “any person charged with a criminal offense” and who is the subject of a detainer to be taken to a local magistrate or judge. They would decide whether to issue an order holding the suspect. The hold would give ICE agents 48 hours to pick up the inmate.

Cooper’s veto message last year said current law already allows the state to hold and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status. He said the bill was about “scoring political points and using fear to divide North Carolinians.”

Lawmakers didn’t attempt an override vote in 2022, as Republicans lacked veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. After November’s elections, the Senate GOP seat margin became veto-proof, while the House is now just one seat short of a similar majority. House Speaker Tim Moore has said he anticipates help from Democrats on a number of issues this year to complete overrides.

Detainers aren’t true arrest warrants and if used to hold an inmate could lead to litigation, said Ann Webb, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Other critics say this mandate would make people in immigrant communities wary of reporting crimes for fear of deportation.

The bill “would thwart the will of the voters in North Carolina’s largest counties, erode community safety by sowing distrust in law enforcement and expose sheriffs and counties to costly lawsuits for constitutional violations,” Webb told the committee.

The committee passed the bill on a divided voice vote after impassioned comments from local residents and advocates.

Bryanna Garcia with El Pueblo said that elected officials are exhibiting prejudice against immigrant families by advancing such legislation: “The constant urge to force sheriff departments to work with ICE will lead to extreme over-policing in Latinx communities.”

But Gil Pagan, a leader with Hispanos Del Sur, which supports the bill, said checking the immigration status of suspects will help ensure immigrant families can raise their children in safe neighborhoods. “It’s a shame that we need to enact legislation for a couple of rogue sheriffs to be mandated to do their jobs,” Pagan added.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden shared the following statement in response to the legislation:

“As the elected Sheriff of Mecklenburg County, I feel compelled to address House Bill 10 (HB10) and Senate Bill 50 (SB50), which I strongly oppose. Like its predecessors HB370 and SB101, HB10 and SB50 seeks to force every duly elected Sheriff in North Carolina to honor voluntary Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers, even if the Sheriff and the respective communities they serve oppose to such cooperation with ICE. These bills are another attempt to diminish the power of Sheriff and doesn’t allow local communities to set their own policies.

“I remain steadfast in my belief that the people of each county as reflected by the decisions of the Sheriff whom they elected should retain the ability to decide within the clear confines of the law as to what extent local law enforcement might cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“North Carolina General Statue § 162-62 mandates all Sheriffs in North Carolina to make a query and notify ICE regarding undocumented persons, therefore, all Sheriffs by law are already required to cooperate with ICE with or without HB10 and SB50 in place.

“Again, I stand firmly against HB10 and SB50, and believe that Mecklenburg County is safer when all members of our community can trust and engage with local law enforcement without fear of repercussions as it pertains to their federal immigration status.”

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