North Carolina Republican lawmakers unhappy with recent decisions by newly elected sheriffs to stop assisting federal immigration agents are now pushing legislation that would force them to hold defendants if requested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A House judiciary panel Wednesday approved GOP legislation that requires sheriffs in all 100 counties to fulfill ICE detainer requests. Immigration officials can ask to have criminal suspects held in county jails up to 48 hours on belief they are in the country unlawfully so agents have time to take them into custody.
Sheriffs elected last year in urban Wake, Durham and Buncombe counties — all Democrats — have announced they won't honor the detainers, saying it's not their job to carry out federal law. Critics of the detainers say such tactics undermine community safety by discouraging immigrants who are victims of crime from coming forward.
Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and bill sponsor, said the measure only directs what sheriffs have been doing on their own for decades — cooperating with federal law enforcement. By ignoring detainers, these new sheriffs are putting criminals back on the street who should otherwise be in custody, he said.
"These sanctuary sheriffs are putting politics ahead of public safety. This bill would put a stop to that," Hall said during committee debate before it passed in a 17-9 party-line vote. While the bill has a long way to go for passage at the General Assembly, it has support from House Speaker Tim Moore.
Immigrant advocates opposed the measure and are already urging Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to veto any final bill that comes to him, likening it to GOP efforts in late 2016 to erode Cooper's powers just before he took office.
"This is an overreach," Ana Ilarraza Blackburn, the Latino liaison for the state NAACP. She spoke later at a rally outside Cooper's office Wednesday to urge his opposition. "The language they're using is very divisive against the sheriff and the immigrant community."
Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said later Wednesday the governor would review any final legislation but "has serious concerns about taking away local authority and making it harder for local law enforcement to do their jobs."
Under the bill, sheriffs who don't comply with detainers or other state immigration laws could face litigation by private citizens, with potential fines of up to $25,500 a day. Detainers wouldn't have to be fulfilled if the subject of the request is a victim or witness to crime. But it will still deter crime victims to seek help for fear they will be wrongly charged instead, Jane Allen Wilson with the N.C. Victim Assistance Network said.
A few sheriffs also are ending participation in the federal 287(g) program, in which local law enforcement agencies are essentially deputized to carry out federal immigration laws and keep immigrants so ICE agents can deport them.
The bill doesn't address 287(g), but a top regional ICE official has said the agency's arrest last month in North Carolina of hundreds of immigrants in the country unlawfully was a direct outcome of some local law enforcement no longer cooperating with ICE. Hall said federal immigration officials helped develop the measure.
"The reality is they're going to enforce federal immigration law whether it's in the confines of a jail or whether they're going to go out and do it in a workplace or in a neighborhood," Hall said. "I think it's best for everybody involved that they do it in a jail."
Civil rights attorneys told the committee holding people behind bars longer than is required after they are released on bond through the ICE detainer is unconstitutional, and suggested costly litigation could be the result. But Hall and other supporters say legal opinions uphold the proposed language.
Rep. Wesley Harris, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said the bill thwarts the will of voters who elected these sheriffs in November, many of which ran on ridding the sheriff's office of working with ICE. "Who are we to tell our counties how our law enforcement officials ... should behave?" Harris asked.
The North Carolina Sheriff's Association hasn't taken a position on the bill but is forming a committee to examine it, according to Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons, the association's president. He wants to talk to ICE agents and said legislation may not be necessary to address their concerns.