Politics & Government

Republicans assail ‘sanctuary sheriffs’ as immigration enforcement bill advances

A controversial proposal to force North Carolina sheriffs to help federal immigration agents deport people passed its first hurdle at the General Assembly Wednesday.

Every member of the public who spoke at Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting opposed the ICE cooperation bill, House Bill 370. After those comments, and a contentious debate among lawmakers on the committee, the Republican-backed bill passed along party lines.

The bill has the backing of the GOP House speaker, Rep. Tim Moore.

Republicans said Wednesday that since multiple sheriffs around the state were elected in 2018 on anti-ICE platforms, it’s necessary to change state law to force them to work with ICE. In North Carolina, county jails are run by the local sheriff.

“These sanctuary sheriffs are putting politics ahead of public safety,” said Republican Rep. Destin Hall of Caldwell County, who sponsored the bill.

But Democrats said it’s an overreaching government policy that insults voters and law enforcement alike.

“Who are we to tell our law enforcement officials, who were elected recently, how to behave?” asked Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Charlotte, where the local sheriff’s race was one of the races won by a candidate who spoke out against ICE, Sheriff Garry McFadden.

The bill would create fines of up to $25,000 per day for counties that don’t honor informal detention requests from ICE, known as detainers. Detainers keep people locked up even after they normally would have been released from jail.

Fear of coming forward?

A large portion of the debate hinged on public safety. Republicans said it’s important to deport accused criminals when possible, and that the state’s largest counties need to help.

Democrats, however, said the bill will actually harm public safety by making victims and witnesses of crimes even more afraid to come to law enforcement. When someone living in the country illegally knows about domestic abuse, drug trafficking or other crimes, they said, they’re not often going to risk deportation to maybe help bust the perpetrators.

That concern was echoed by some of the members of the public who spoke. Jane Allen Wilson, who works for the N.C. Victim Assistance Network in Chatham County, said she’s seen first-hand that “if there is even a hint of ICE deportation,” then victims will refuse to contact the authorities.

“Traffickers and offenders know about this fear and they hold it over the heads of victims to prevent them from coming forward,” she said.

Through a translator, Yolanda Zavala told the committee that she came “to explain to you all the damage these kinds of laws do.”

Her son was deported even though he had no criminal record, she said, leaving her American grandchildren without their dad. And when her daughter was hit by a car and nearly died, Zavala said, the first two people who found her refused to help because they were undocumented and afraid of being deported if the police responded.

Democrats on the committee tried to ask follow-up questions of Wilson, Zavala and the other public speakers, but were denied.

Hall dismissed concerns that the bill would cause some witnesses or victims to be afraid to come forward. The bill has a section that allows sheriffs to have a policy, if they wish, of not investigating the immigration status of potential witnesses.

Not all the Republicans on the committee liked that, however. Rep. David Rogers of Rutherfordton called it “a giant loophole” and asked for it to be taken out. But Hall stood by it.

“The intent of that section is to not punish folks who have been victims of crimes,” Hall said.

Legal concerns

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro raised the possibility that ICE will ask a local sheriff to detain someone who is here legally, the sheriff won’t have a choice, and then that person will sue and local taxpayers will be on the hook.

“I did some research on this, and ICE has some history of detaining US citizens and legal residents,” Harrison said.

A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found that between 2012 and 2018, ICE had wrongfully detained at least 1,480 U.S. citizens, including one man who spent three and a half years behind bars before officials finally acknowledged he was an American.

Durham Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, who used to be a judge, added that ICE detainers appear to violate the U.S. Constitution regardless of the person’s actual immigration status.

“We are a nation of laws and we need to follow the laws,” Morey said. “... A detainer by itself, the federal courts have found, violates the federal constitution. I have an entire list of cases across the country.”

Hall dismissed that concern, saying no court has yet stopped North Carolina sheriffs from working with ICE.

Republican Rep. Allen McNeill, a former top deputy at the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, said he supports the bill. He dismissed legal concerns Democrats raised, pointing to a recent court case out of Charlotte that led to a favorable ruling for a sheriff who had kept an inmate in jail after he would normally have been released so he could be turned over to ICE.