RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican legislation ordering North Carolina’s sheriffs to note the immigration status of jail inmates and assist federal agents who want to detain them received state Senate approval on Thursday.
The legislation passed along partisan lines after a divisive debate that touched on race and ethnicity. The bill generally echoes a 2019 measure that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper successfully vetoed. Now, as then, the GOP’s House and Senate majorities aren’t veto-proof. Immigration enforcement bills are popular with the Republicans’ voter base.
The bills were prompted by GOP lawmakers angered by the refusal of first-term Democratic sheriffs in several urban counties to work closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identity and hold defendants believed to be in the country illegally. The sheriffs’ decisions, according to Republicans, have led to violent criminals being freed and causing more harm.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re at a point that we have elected law enforcement officers that are simply refusing to abide by their oaths of office, and (who) choose which laws they enforce,” Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican and bill sponsor, said on the Senate floor before the 27-20 vote. Their decisions, according to Edwards, are potentially “releasing the most violent criminals back out onto the streets.”
The sheriffs called out by the legislation say they follow what state law currently requires by seeking an inmate’s legal status, and that the current proposal goes too far and could lead to lawsuits. Along with immigrant advocates, these sheriffs also argue the measure would discourage immigrants from contacting police about crimes for fear of deportation. And they noted that under the bill, suspects could be taken away by ICE before they can be tried in state court.
“What kind of dignity is that for victims?” asked Democratic Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed of Mecklenburg County. “This bill only serves to create uncertainty and fear in these communities.”
Thursday’s measure, which now heads to the House, mandates that sheriffs and other jail administrators determine whether any person charged with felony drug or violent crimes have ICE detainers seeking their custody. If they do, sheriff’s deputies must take the inmate quickly to a local magistrate or judge who will decide whether to issue an order holding them. The additional hold would give ICE agents 48 hours to pick up the inmate.
Most of the state’s 100 sheriffs comply with detainers, but critics say the documents aren’t true arrest warrants and can be ignored. The process with the judge or magistrate is supposed to address that disagreement. The handful of sheriffs refusing to enforce detainers are African American.
Edwards also offered an amendment Thursday eliminating a provision that would have subjected a sheriff to a misdemeanor if the immigration query and hearing isn’t carried out. The 2019 law would have made sheriffs subject to removal from office.
Still, Cooper is unlikely to shift his ground on the new legislation. He said in 2019 that the bill would make it hard for sheriffs to protect citizens from crime and argued that the measure was “simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina.”
Sen. Paul Lowe, a Forsyth County Democrat who is Black, said the measure “looks like racial profiling from where I sit.” Edwards later took offense, saying he had been called a racist. Lowe retorted that he had not called anyone a racist.
Another bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Norm Sanderson of Pamlico County, said there’s no profiling in the bill because the defendants are brought to jail for committing violent crimes.
The bill’s passage came a day after the House voted to allow individuals to sue local government agencies that attempt to enforce “sanctuary city” immigration policies, which are already illegal in the state. An alliance of more than 30 civil rights and immigrant groups oppose both measures.
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