Politics & Government

NC sheriffs now oppose mandate to help ICE – but it’s closer to becoming law

ICE attributes increased arrests to sheriff, other jurisdictions not cooperating

Sean Gallagher, Atlanta Field Office Director for U.S. ICE, talks about the increased arrests his office is making and attributed it to Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden's cancellation of the 287g program at the jai.
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Sean Gallagher, Atlanta Field Office Director for U.S. ICE, talks about the increased arrests his office is making and attributed it to Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden's cancellation of the 287g program at the jai.

A proposal to require law enforcement agencies to cooperate with immigration authorities now has opposition from an influential group: the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.

But House Bill 370 won approval from the state House on Wednesday just hours after the association announced its opposition.

The bill would require law enforcement agencies across the state to comply with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An ICE detainer request is a form or notice sent to law enforcement agencies alerting them that ICE wants custody of the person the local agency has jailed. ICE is empowered to take custody of some immigrants, but courts have ruled that law enforcement agencies have the right to ignore ICE detainers because they’re requests seeking voluntary compliance.

Legislative Republicans introduced the bill after some North Carolina sheriffs announced their intention to start ignoring ICE.

The association, the main lobbying group for sheriffs across the state, declined to take a position when the bill was introduced in March. On Wednesday, before the House vote, the association said it hopes to preserve the operational independence of sheriffs’ departments.

“The people of each county, as reflected by the decision of their elected sheriff, should retain the ability to decide which lawful method they will utilize in complying with existing federal and state law,” the association said in a written news release.

A majority of NC sheriffs honor ICE requests, the association said, adding that its position on HB 370 shouldn’t be viewed as a stance on whether or not sheriffs should comply with ICE.

“The Association takes no position on the benefits or detriments of participation in the ICE detainer program as it relates to public safety in North Carolina or to U.S. immigration policy,” the group said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the bill passed the House 63-51 and was sent to the Senate. During the debate, Chatham County Democrat Robert Reives said supporters of the bill have unfairly attacked the reputation of sheriffs who have decided not to cooperate with ICE.

There are legal and financial consequences to consider when complying with an ICE detainer, as PolitiFact North Carolina recently reported. People have successfully sued law enforcement agencies that held them beyond their jail release date.

Referring to non-compliant sheriffs as “sanctuary sheriffs” is “derogatory and nasty,” Reives said, adding that lawmakers should slow down to listen to their concerns.

“All they have asked us to do is stop this train, sit down … and see if we can come to a result,” he said.

After the House vote, Speaker Tim Moore’s office published a news release that included quotes from Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican.

“These sanctuary sheriffs are simply putting partisan politics ahead of public safety,” Hall said. “This bill only applies to illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes.”

Local agencies that work with ICE have come under increased scrutiny in recent months, as newly elected sheriffs in five of the state’s seven most populous counties stopped honoring the detainers.

Newly elected sheriffs in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties both ran on platforms that emphasized their opposition to 287(g), a controversial partnership with ICE that enables sheriff’s deputies to check the legal status of inmates in county jail.

HB 370 would not require sheriffs to participate in 287(g), which was pioneered in North Carolina as early as 2006.

But in both sheriffs’ rebuke of the federal agency, they also announced they would stop honoring ICE detainers. Newly elected sheriffs in three other counties —Buncombe, Forsyth and Durham — also made the move in recent months.

And that issue has drawn the ire of ICE as well as Republicans who control the state legislature.

ICE officials said that without being able to detain inmates in county jail, the agency had “no choice” but to ramp up its enforcement efforts in streets and neighborhoods, The Charlotte Observer reported. During one week in February, ICE arrested 275 people statewide.

Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, said that a failure to honor ICE detainers — and in some cases, to notify ICE when inmates are being released — creates what he called a “threat to public safety.”

“They’re going beyond saying, ‘We won’t assist,’” he said. “They are preventing ICE officers from doing the work.”

In Mecklenburg County alone, Cox said that a failure to honor ICE detainers has resulted in the release of at least 19 unlawful immigrants charged with dangerous crimes, from statutory rape to trafficking cocaine and assault with intent to kill.

Jim Pendergraph, a former Mecklenburg sheriff who later oversaw ICE’s partnerships with local law enforcement, said that it was “hard to criticize” those sheriffs — including Garry McFadden — who had run on a platform of ending ties with the federal agency.

“Every sheriff has to do what he thinks is best for his constituents,” he said. “Whether you’re right or wrong, you have to live with the decision.”

Pendergraph added that he was a “little disappointed” that so many sheriffs are unwilling to cooperate with ICE, though he added the agency must find a more effective way to detain inmates than issuing ICE detainers.

Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University and a native Spanish speaker.
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