A day after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill prohibiting so-called sanctuary city policies in North Carolina, Jose Lopez, the police chief in Durham, was assessing the effect it would have on this city, where, for the past dozen years, police officers have been instructed to limit inquiries about a person’s immigration status.
For Durham to comply with the new law, Lopez said, the local rule would have to come off the books. Although he said he would still recommend that his officers refrain from poking their noses into immigration matters, he predicted that rumors would spread among undocumented immigrants that it was no longer safe to cooperate with the Durham police.
“That’s going to bring a distrust,” said Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. He was picked eight years ago to lead the police force in this old tobacco town, which has a Hispanic population that more than doubled in the past decade. “It will cause individuals to flee the police, on the belief that some minor incident is going to get them deported.”
Last month, Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked a Republican-backed sanctuary cities bill, despite growing pressure from conservatives to crack down on local governments that refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials or, in cities like Durham, to vigorously pursue immigration investigations.
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But the lack of action in Washington has only increased the ferment over the issue in some cities and states across the country.
North Carolina was the first state to turn the conservative anger into legislative action after the bill’s failure in Washington when McCrory, a Republican, signed its bill into law on Oct. 28.
A week later, the sheriff of San Francisco, Ross Mirkarimi, lost his bid for re-election four months after a woman, Kathryn Steinle, was fatally shot while walking on the Embarcadero waterfront. The man accused of the shooting was an unauthorized immigrant, and Steinle’s death has played a central role in the sanctuary debate nationally.
Another dispute broke out in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott accused the sheriff of Dallas County, Lupe Valdez, of failing to “fully honor” Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests. Abbott, in an Oct. 26 letter to the sheriff, argued that recent changes in her policies posed “a serious danger to Texans.”
Abbott has indicated that he would push for bills targeting such policies in Texas’ legislative session in 2017. Other bills pending in Massachusetts and Michigan would punish local governments that maintained similar policies.
“We’ve got these local governments arbitrarily choosing which laws they want to abide by,” said State Sen. Mike Kowall of Michigan, a Republican who introduced the bill there.
We’ve got these local governments arbitrarily choosing which laws they want to abide by.
State Sen. Mike Kowall of Michigan
The issue, now part of the debate over immigration politics in the Republican presidential race, took hold after the killing in San Francisco.
The suspect is a Mexican national with an extensive criminal record who had been deported five times. Before the shooting, he had been released from custody by the authorities in San Francisco, who declined to respond to a federal request that the immigration authorities be notified. Mirkarimi said he had been barred from responding by San Francisco’s sanctuary rules, which strictly limit cooperation between the police and federal immigration officials.
Like Lopez and others, Mirkarimi has defended sanctuary policies on the ground that they help build trust between local law enforcement and the immigrants living in the city.
In North Carolina, McCrory said the legislature had acted to make sure cities enforced the law.
“It is the sworn duty of all of these officers to uphold the rule of law, and the policies that are derived from these laws, which is why no one should tie the hands of our police, and our sheriffs and other law enforcement officers,” he said upon signing the bill.
It is unclear what, if any, effect the North Carolina bill will have on officers’ immigration responses in municipalities labeled sanctuary cities by conservatives in the state, a list that includes Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Charlotte.
But the law was bound to stir passions in a state where liberals and conservatives are bitterly divided, and where clashes over immigration-related issues have been commonplace since the 1990s. During that decade, North Carolina’s immigrant population grew 274 percent – the largest percentage of any state during that time.
On Friday, immigrant families and their allies held a “pots and pans” march and rally outside the Executive Mansion about a related immigration issue – demanding that North Carolina pull out of a 26-state lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration.
And after the sanctuary city bill signing in October, about 200 activists gathered outside the Executive Mansion for a boisterous rally. Six protesters were arrested for blocking traffic, and others waved caricatures depicting McCrory as a Klansman.
“The governor is using his political power to bring a law that’s going to cause a lot of problems,” said Gabriela Zabala, 65, a member of El Centro Hispano, a Hispanic advocacy group. “He thinks he’s going to get a lot more votes, like Trump.”
But state Rep. Chris Millis, a Republican and a sponsor of the law, which was approved in both chambers on largely party-line votes, said, “In North Carolina, we want to be proactive in defense of our citizens, to prevent horrific crimes like what happened in San Francisco.”
North Carolina’s law prohibits cities or counties from having any policy that ‘limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.’
The law prohibits cities or counties from having any policy that “limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.” It also outlaws any rule that prohibits police from gathering immigration information on individuals.
Supporters of the law say it will prevent local governments from adopting more comprehensive sanctuary policies like those in San Francisco. And state Rep. George Cleveland, the bill’s lead author, said he hoped that it would spur the police to take more vigorous action against undocumented immigrants.
“My feeling is that they would be obligated to take these people into custody,” said Cleveland, a Republican from coastal Onslow County.
Cleveland said there was some merit to the argument that such enforcement might scare off potential witnesses to crimes. But that, he said, would be the fault of the unauthorized immigrants themselves.
“If they want to live in a community where bandits can treat them any way they want to be treated because they’re afraid to point out to law enforcement who’s doing it, that’s their problem,” he said.