North Carolina House Republicans pushed legislation through their chamber Wednesday requiring all county sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration agents, particularly by complying with written requests to hold criminal defendants.
But the party-line 63-51 vote to force sheriffs to fulfill Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests signals that GOP lawmakers could find themselves short in overcoming any potential veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The measure now goes to the Senate.
The bill is a direct response to recent actions by a handful of newly elected sheriffs — all Democrats — to pull back on working with ICE agents. Some say they won't honor the detainers, which give agents up to 48 hours to pick up suspects on the belief they are in the country unlawfully.
The detainers aren't arrest warrants, and for now it's voluntary for sheriffs to accept them. Bill sponsors said recent refusals by sheriffs — like those in Wake, Durham and Buncombe counties — to comply with the detainers mean certain defendants are going free on bond, when they could be awaiting deportation instead.
"This is about criminals. It's that simple," said Rep. Brenden Jones, a Columbus County Republican. "It is this body's duty and responsibility to ensure that local governments are not endangering the whole state."
Immigration advocacy and victims' assistance groups say the measure will discourage victims of crime — who also may be in the country unlawfully — from coming to deputies for fear they will be wrongly charged and returned to their native countries. They are worried although the legislation makes clear compliance with the detainer doesn't apply to crime victims or witnesses.
Democrats say the proposal is politically motivated, arguing Republicans seek to punish these new Democratic sheriffs even though the sheriffs were duly elected by local citizens.
"It's not about public safety. It's about gotcha politics, in my opinion," said House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat. Sheriffs already are required to determine whether people charged with felonies or impaired driving and placed in their jails are lawful U.S. residents. The measure expands that to people charged with any criminal offense.
The measure says 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 for repeat offenses.
Republicans rejected calls by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association this week to delay votes to give them time to survey their members or work toward a solution that didn't require changing the law.
The association came out in opposition to the measure hours before Wednesday's floor debate.
Although it appears a majority of the 100 county sheriffs honor detainers, the association statement said, "the people of each county, as reflected by the decision of their elected sheriff, should retain the ability to decide which lawful method they will utilize in complying with existing federal and state law."
Bill opponents last week already urged Cooper to veto the measure should it come to his desk. A Cooper spokesman last week said the governor had "serious concerns about taking away local authority and making it harder for local law enforcement to do their jobs."
The bill doesn't address the federal 287(g) program, in which local law enforcement agencies reach voluntary agreements with ICE to essentially carry out federal immigration laws. Wake and Mecklenburg county sheriffs also are ending participation in that program.