The Republican-controlled General Assembly headed for a showdown with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper as a bill that would strong-arm North Carolina sheriffs refusing to cooperate with federal immigration agents neared final passage.
The Senate late Monday approved a measure that would require all county sheriffs to recognize requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates it believes are in the country unlawfully.
Sheriffs also would be required to attempt to check everyone in their jails charged with a crime — not just people accused of the most serious offenses— to determine if they are legal U.S. residents.
The bill is a direct response to a handful of recently elected Democratic sheriffs in the most populated counties who announced they wouldn't comply with ICE detainers, which give agents 48 hours to pick up inmates, even though they aren't actual criminal arrest warrants. Bill supporters are unhappy with these sheriffs and believe they should do what nearly all 100 in the state have been doing voluntarily for decades.
"It's all of our jobs to protect our citizens," Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican, said during floor debate, adding the bill "doesn't target victims. It targets criminals."
The dissenting sheriffs, who are African American, either ran on the platform of ending cooperation with ICE or determined that accepting the detainers wouldn't make their communities safer. Those sheriffs and allies have accused GOP legislators of unfairly targeting them due to partisanship and race.
Senate approval came hours after Cooper signaled his likely veto of the measure should it reach his desk. Cooper's vetoes can be upheld if Democrats remain united.
The House approved an earlier version in April and would need to vote to agree on the Senate changes, which have been supported by bill sponsors, before the bill goes to Cooper.
"I know that current law allows us to lock up and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status," Cooper said in a release. "This bill isn't about that — in addition to being unconstitutional, it's about scoring political points and using fear to divide us."
Immigrant advocates and allies in the legislature say those living in the U.S. without legal permission would be less likely to report crimes if the bill became law and would be fearful, leading to more dangerous communities.
"Political points in the name of public safety run the risk of putting real lives in danger," Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat and son of immigrants, told colleagues.
The bill cleared the Senate on a party-line vote after over an hour of debate watched by many opponents in the gallery, including children. Many attendees clapped after Mohammed's speech, prompting a warning from the Senate dais.
Earlier Monday, opponents held news conferences in Raleigh and Charlotte. The Rev. Edgar Vergara Millán, a United Methodist minister, told House and Senate members that God was listening to the voices of immigrants in the state who would suffer more under this legislation.
"We pray that you would do the same," Millán said.
The Senate version says a judge or magistrate would issue an order to hold the inmate under the detainer, rather than direct the sheriff act unilaterally. But civil liberties advocates say the legislation still doesn't provide adequate due process to inmates and is constitutionally flawed.
The new language in the Senate measure led the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, representing all sheriffs, to support the bill after initially opposing the House version of the bill.