Gov. Cooper vetoes bill forcing NC sheriffs to work with ICE

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For the second time since he became governor, Roy Cooper has blocked an attempt by the state legislature to force North Carolina sheriffs to cooperate with immigration authorities.

The Republican-controlled legislature voted along party lines to pass Senate Bill 101, which would require sheriffs to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they charge people with certain high-level offenses and can’t determine their status as a legal resident or citizen.

On Monday, the Democratic governor vetoed the bill. He also vetoed a similar immigration bill in 2019.

“This law is only about scoring political points and using fear to divide North Carolinians,” Cooper said in his veto message. “As the state’s former top law enforcement officer, I know that current law already allows the state to incarcerate and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.

The bill now goes back to the legislature, where Republicans can try to win over enough Democrats to override the veto and pass the bill into law over Cooper’s objection. That’s unlikely to happen, however. No Democrat in either the House or Senate voted for the bill originally.

“This bill is unconstitutional and weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating that sheriffs do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties,” Cooper said.

Arguments for, against the bill

Supporters say it will help public safety.

“If you’re illegal and a sheriff’s holding you for violating a serious law, my goodness, why wouldn’t we let the feds know about that?” said Rep. Carson Smith, a Republican who is the former sheriff of Pender County.

Both sides agree that most sheriffs are already cooperating with ICE voluntarily. But some, mostly in more populous, urban counties — including Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden — recently ended cooperation agreements with ICE. Doing so was a popular campaign promise among Democratic sheriffs who swept into office in the 2018 elections, reacting to public uproar at Republican President Donald Trump’s “child separation” policy and other immigration stances.

“Unfortunately there’s a small number of sheriffs in our state who have decided to simply not work with ICE,” Republican Rep. Destin Hall of Lenoir said during a debate over the bill in late June. “This is a recent phenomenon in our state. The results of these policies have been tragic.”

Hall pointed to Charlotte. He said at least two immigrants in the country without legal authorization were arrested there in recent years and then released on bail, instead of being handed over to ICE — only to be arrested again while out on bail for allegedly committing another violent crime.

Opponents, however, say the bill’s rules were potentially unconstitutional and could lead to sheriffs being sued, in part because they could force sheriffs to hold people behind bars even after they should’ve been released — including innocent people arrested in cases of mistaken identity.

Democratic Rep. Ricky Hurtado of Alamance County, who is the only Hispanic member of the state legislature, said the bill would harm public safety. It would make Hispanic people less likely to work with police or report crimes, he said, scared of being racially profiled and locked up even if they’re here legally.

“The message the immigrant community receives when they see something like this ... is that there is risk of being separated from their families regardless of immigration status,” Hurtado said. “I know this for a fact because my mother, who is a U.S. citizen, still to this day walks around with her ID and her passport wherever she goes — in case she runs into an incident and recognizes that she’s going to have to prove that she’s a citizen, to make sure she can come home and see her husband and kids again.”

Details of the bill

Under SB 101, sheriff’s departments and other administrators of local jails would have been required to inform ICE if officials couldn’t determine the legal status of someone charged with drug felonies under the N.C. Controlled Substances Act (excluding simple possession or other misdemeanors); homicide; rape or other sex offenses; kidnapping and abduction; human trafficking; certain assault offenses; or violations of a domestic violence protective order.

The bill also would have required sheriffs to hold certain individuals if ICE indicates it intends to take custody of them, for up to 48 hours or until ICE takes custody of the person or rescinds what it called an “immigrant detainer” — whichever comes first.

Activists from immigrants’ rights groups had called for the veto, disparaging it as a “show me your papers” bill that encouraged racial profiling, and predicting it would encourage fear and distrust in immigrant communities. Durham Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, a retired judge, said the hold requirement would lead to people facing extra punishment simply for having a foreign-sounding name — just like the other bill Cooper vetoed in 2019.

“It still violates the civil rights of people with names that don’t sound like Smith, and John, and we should look at it carefully,” Morey said. “And it denies people their fundamental right to serve their sentence or make bond, and be released.”

Republicans shrugged off the criticisms, saying they didn’t agree that it was unconstitutional, and that they thought the public safety benefits would be worth the extra duties for local sheriffs. Sen. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville said during debate on the bill that it would “keep criminals off of the street,” and that it had been narrowed to require ICE involvement only for the “most heinous crimes.”

Democrats, however, questioned the logic behind that argument, saying if someone gets accused of a truly awful crime, they’re unlikely to be released on bail in the first place.

Others, like Hurtado, said that if the bill had become law it would’ve made it even harder for sheriffs to recruit Latino deputies, since it would’ve been just one more thing sowing distrust of law enforcement in that community.

“As I speak to sheriffs and police officers all across the state, they’re telling me ‘How can you help us recruit more diverse candidates into our force, to make sure we keep everyone safe?’” he said. “Bills like this make it harder for folks on the ground to do their job, and it puts us backwards in our ultimate goal of keeping everyone safe.”

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