RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s sheriffs would be required to help federal agents who are interested in picking up jail inmates they believe are in the country illegally in legislation approved by the state House on Tuesday.
The 71-44 affirmative vote marks a key step in yet another effort by Republicans at the General Assembly to force sheriffs in several urban counties to work more closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after they declined to cooperate.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed successfully very similar bills in 2019 and 2022. He said last year that law enforcement can already hold dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status and that the GOP was simply trying to win political points.
But “yes” votes Tuesday by three Democrats improve Republican prospects for overriding another potential Cooper veto this year.
Like other bills on topics Cooper previously vetoed, Republicans have tried again to advance this immigration measure this year because they gained seats in the November elections.
The GOP is now just one seat short of veto-proof majority in the House, so generally at least some Democratic support is needed for a veto override. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Republicans have a veto-proof advantage.
The 2019 and 2022 bills were approved in party-line votes.
Republicans and allied crime victims have said a handful of sheriffs are falling short in their duty to protect the public by letting suspects needlessly go free to potentially commit more crimes. The arguments also converge with narratives about rising violence.
“Time after time, we’ve seen the tragic results,” said Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and the bill’s chief sponsor, mentioning a stack of news reports of people who were formally sought by ICE committing more crimes after being released. The inaction by some sheriffs, he added, is “putting partisan politics ahead of public safety.”
Current law already tells sheriffs to check the legal status of certain inmates in their jails. Any latitude in contacting ICE is eliminated if sheriffs can’t otherwise determine the immigration status of a person in jail. Under the bill, an ICE inquiry now would apply to all defendants charged with felony drug or violent crimes.
The legislation directs sheriffs in all 100 counties to comply with ICE detainer requests, in which state immigration agents ask to be notified before the release from a local jail of a defendant whom the agency believes is in the country unlawfully.
The bill requires “any person charged with a criminal offense” and who is the subject of a detainer to be taken to a local magistrate or judge. The jurist would decide whether to issue an order holding the suspect. The hold would give ICE agents 48 hours to pick up the inmate.
Civil liberties advocates opposed to the bill say detainers aren’t true arrest warrants and could subject sheriffs’ offices to litigation by defendants claiming violations of their right to due process.
The bill “will make our counties less safe,” says a letter signed by 11 sheriffs and sent to lawmakers urging them to oppose the bill. “We take seriously our duties and our responsibilities to the people of North Carolina and we must be permitted to set local law enforcement priorities.”
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden and Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe were among the signers.
Some immigrant groups say such directives will discourage some people who fear deportation from reporting crimes.
Rep. Maria Cervania, a Wake County Democrat, recalled during Tuesday’s debate how she was once pulled over by a law enforcement officer who didn’t believe she was a U.S. citizen after repeatedly telling him she was born in California.
Cervania said the three hours that she was kept along the roadside were the scariest of her life. She said the bill would place more unnecessary fear in people whose legal status may be questioned.
“What happened to me is not unique. And it happens more than you think,” said Cervania, who is of Asian heritage. “By stoking the negative embers, we ignore the fact that our state, our nation, has been built on the backs of immigrants.”
But Republican Rep. Ken Fontenot of Wilson County said that if he or any of his House colleagues failed to work with law enforcement, “We’re going to jail.”
So “why should law enforcement not cooperate with law enforcement?” he asked. “This makes no sense to me.”