Opinion

Don’t force NC sheriffs to bow to ICE

A bill that would force N.C. sheriffs to more fully cooperate with federal immigration officials not only is potentially harmful to the sheriffs and the communities they serve; it’s based on a faulty premise.

House Bill 370 would compel local law enforcement agencies to honor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. Some N.C. sheriffs, including those in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, have ignored or vowed to ignore these “detainer” requests from ICE, which can keep suspects in jail up to 48 hours beyond their release date.

Supporters of HB370 point to a Mecklenburg County case last month in which a 37-year-old Honduran man, Luis Pineda-Ancheta, was involved in a nine-hour SWAT standoff shortly after being released from Mecklenburg County jail. Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden, who was elected last November, has vowed not to cooperate with ICE, and his department did not honor an ICE detainer request for Pineda-Ancheta.

After the incident, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox accused McFadden of creating a public safety risk. McFadden countered that it’s not the sheriff’s responsibility to determine if, when and how someone is released from jail. McFadden is correct. That responsibility falls on magistrates and judges, who in this case authorized release of Pineda-Ancheta on a $5,000 bond before the SWAT standoff, then again on a $65,000 bond, which was posted by a bail bondsman, the sheriff’s department told Observer reporter Jane Wester.

HB370 supporters say such situations would be avoided by requiring sheriffs to honor detainer requests, but those requests are not backed by court orders, and they can place law enforcement in legal jeopardy for holding people without a warrant. Several U.S. counties stopped honoring detainer requests after an Oregon woman successfully sued her county in 2014 for violating her rights by holding her for ICE.

The bill also could harm North Carolina’s cities and towns, particularly immigrant communities whose members already are hesitant to call the sheriff or police when they need help. Said Buncombe County sheriff Quentin Miller in a statement Friday: “If ICE comes into our community and creates division and mistrust when we need cooperation and mutual understanding between our immigrant and minority communities and local law enforcement, then we are all worse off for it.”

There’s a better path to keep potentially dangerous undocumented immigrants off the streets. Local magistrates, along with the Superior Court and District Court judges who hire and supervise them, can and should develop or revisit pre-trial release guidelines that give magistrates and judges discretion over if and how someone is released from jail. Those guidelines could involve notifying ICE officials in situations that might be particularly hazardous to communities and individuals.

Instead, NC Republicans are intent on a bill that interferes in how sheriffs try to navigate the delicate landscape of federal immigration laws, and ICE is misleading North Carolinians about its necessity. It’s another example of how ICE officials and agents are too often willing to push legal and ethical boundaries in enforcing immigration laws. North Carolina’s sheriffs are one check on that dangerous behavior. Lawmakers shouldn’t take it away.

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