Gov. Roy Cooper called an effort by state lawmakers to require sheriffs to cooperate with immigration authorities “unconstitutional,” as that effort took a major step closer to becoming law.
The Senate voted 25-18 on Monday night in support of House Bill 370, but Cooper’s comments may represent a serious obstacle to the bill, which would need approval from him or from super-majorities in the legislature.
“As the former top law enforcement officer in our state, I know that current law allows us to lock up and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status,” Cooper said in a statement. “This bill isn’t about that — in addition to being unconstitutional, it’s about scoring political points and using fear to divide us.”
HB 370 would require sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or face possible removal from office. It has drawn criticism from groups who say it would force newly elected sheriffs in the state’s largest cities to revert to policies that support ICE and would hurt trust among immigrants.
But in Monday night’s Senate debate, Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said many opponents are “not fully understanding what this bill does.”
“There is a huge cloud in America right now involving immigration,” he said, citing debates over immigration raids, border detention facilities and the DACA program. “What we’re talking about is cooperating with an organization (ICE) that’s trying to protect us.”
The North Carolina House has passed the bill, but needs to vote again to approve changes made by senators.
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the bill only affects immigrants who are arrested and are targeted by ICE because they’ve “committed crimes across the country.”
“Why is that unfair?” he asked “This is a bad guy, he’s committed crimes everywhere, or bad enough to be on this list.”
But Democrats argued that the bill would likely be challenged in court and found unconstitutional.
Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, said the bill represents “Washington-like, Trump tactics … to further an agenda that is shrouded in prejudice.”
Democrats also said the bill would make immigrants less likely to contact law enforcement in an emergency. “It will damage the trust between immigrant communities and police, making our neighborhoods more dangerous instead of safer,” said Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg.
On Monday morning, activists gathered at the General Assembly and called on Cooper to speak up before the bill lands on his desk. They carried signs that said, “Hands Off Our Sheriffs,” “Truth & Facts Matter,” and “Vote No HB370.”
In Charlotte, meanwhile, local faith leaders appeared alongside Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden at a press conference, as McFadden and other speakers said the bill targets black sheriffs.
McFadden is one of six newly elected African American sheriffs in the state’s most populous counties who have stopped honoring immigration detainers and otherwise distanced themselves from the federal agency.
Several of those sheriffs have publicly spoken out against HB 370, in direct opposition to the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, which came out in favor of the bill.
Rep. Destin Hall, who sponsored the effort, said in a statement that “it’s sad to see the Governor has sided with radical open-borders liberals over the (association).”
Questions of race
If passed, the bill would require sheriffs to notify ICE when they have booked an inmate into jail they suspect is in the country illegally.
Sheriffs would also be required to honor immigration detainers — voluntary requests from the agency that those inmates be held until federal officials can pick them up — and could be removed from office by a judge if they fail to do so.
In Raleigh, the Rev. Dr. Anthony Spearman, the president of North Carolina NAACP, said the bill was a partisan partnership with ICE to override voters who elected county sheriffs because they said they would not cooperate with ICE.
“It’s a message to our newly elected sheriffs to ‘Get in their place and stay there,’” Spearman said.
During the press conference in Charlotte, several pastors and an imam called the bill “racist.”
“It is a fatally flawed bill specifically targeting law enforcement leaders who are African American with the demand they racially profile Latinos,” said the Rev. Dr. Val Rosenquist, pastor at First United Methodist Church.
But GOP Sen. Chuck Edwards of Henderson County said the bill “has nothing to do with race” and falls into a long history of the state’s Republicans opposing policies that limited local law enforcement collaboration with ICE.
In 2015, he noted, Republicans passed a law that banned so-called “sanctuary cities” in North Carolina.
“Saying these sheriffs are being targeted because of their race,” Edwards said, “is not just inaccurate, it’s offensive.”
While Rosenquist also said the bill unfairly targets Latinos, Edwards said the law applies to all immigrants who are living in the United States without legal status — regardless of their country of origin.
“It could be someone in the county illegally from Mexico, Canada or Norway,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
More safety or more violence?
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of El Centro Hispano, which organizes Latinos in the Triangle, said the General Assembly is putting immigrant communities at risk.
A 2007 study in the journal “Violence Against Women” found Latino immigrants were less than half as likely as U.S.-born residents to seek help for domestic violence from formal agencies.
This discrepancy will only increase if the bill becomes law, Rocha-Goldberg said, as victims of domestic violence and other crimes will be too afraid to report them. Any progress to remedy mistrust of police in Hispanic and black communities will be reversed.
Republican proponents of the bill, meanwhile, have pointed to the much-publicized case of Luis Pineda-Ancheta, who was arrested on charges related to domestic violence but later released from Mecklenburg County jail in April.
The bill, Edwards said in the statement, would “protect those who have been victims of domestic violence by illegal immigrants from becoming victims once again.”
ICE had issued a detainer request for Pineda-Ancheta, who was living in the United States illegally, after his first arrest. But after that detainer was ignored, he was then arrested on similar charges against the same victim, following a nine-hour standoff with police.
A judge or a magistrate, not sheriffs or their deputies, determines if — and how — to release an inmate from jail.
Ann Webb, a policy analyst with the North Carolina ACLU, previously told The Charlotte Observer that cooperation with ICE can deter victims of domestic violence without legal status from coming forward for fear they could be arrested too — as was the case with one survivor last year.