The Trump administration's leaders on immigration enforcement said Monday that several North Carolina sheriffs care more about politics than public safety by refusing to cooperate with federal agents looking for immigrants believed to be in the country unlawfully.
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence visited Raleigh for a meeting with state and local officials and lawmakers to talk about the dangers of refusing ICE detainers. They also heard from individuals who say their family members were killed by people who were not supposed to be in the country.
"It is the responsibility of our local, state and federal leaders to take action to protect our community," Wolf said during the round-table discussion. "Unfortunately, what we've seen is the opposite from certain elected officials and jurisdictions around the country and right here in North Carolina."
State legislation approved by Republicans this summer but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would have required sheriffs to recognize immigration detainers. Several Democratic sheriffs do not comply with those requests. Detainers usually request that a suspect be held up to 48 hours for pickup.
Cooper said the bill was likely unconstitutional, adding that he was concerned about a provision directing that a sheriff be removed from office for failing to meet new immigration duties such as responding to detainers. And immigration advocates have said arresting people on detainers violates their due process rights and would lead to litigation.
Republicans lack the votes to complete the override of the legislation, which passed along party lines.
Democrats have called the legislation politically motivated and have suggested that the race of the sheriffs played a role in the bill. No Democratic legislators participated in Monday's event at a General Assembly office building.
GOP legislators who ran the bill this year told family members of the victims that they'll keep fighting to enact the measure.
"For our governor to turn his back on our sheriffs and say that your safety is not as important as a criminal is a travesty to this state," said Rep. Brenden Jones of Columbus County.
Chris Storie of Sparta told Wolf and other participants that the suspect in a 2011 Outer Banks wreck that killed Storie's brother and injured her was unlawfully in the country and ultimately released from jail on bond. The suspect remains a fugitive, she said. Storie said the accident has devastated her family — saying they no longer get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas amid their ongoing pain.
"I don't want to see any more families going through this," Storie said on Monday. "We have had no justice in our case."
North Carolina legislators and members of Congress — in particularly U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis — have emphasized the detainer issue this year, pointing to data from ICE showing local authorities had refused to honor nearly 500 detainers as of late August.
ICE has even created a web site highlighting "non-cooperative jurisdictions" and mug shots of criminal defendants who "may be released into your community" because certain sheriffs routinely fail to honor detainers. ICE has also identified criminal defendants who committed additional crimes after sheriffs in Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham counties declined to honor detainers.
Wolf said if subjects of ICE detainers can't be held in safe environments such as jails, then ICE agents must go arrest the defendants in communities. Several county sheriffs who comply with detainers say their commitment is based on protecting public safety.
"We go after the people who broke the law and constantly breaking the law," Davidson County Sheriff Richie Simmons said. "These are bad people that we stop and we hold them and I'm not going to put back on the streets."