Politics & Government

A bill would force compliance with ICE. Black sheriffs say lawmakers targeted them.

Sheriffs from North Carolina’s largest counties entered a legislative committee meeting on Wednesday looking for “respect,” only to walk out early as state lawmakers accused them of failing to protect their residents.

Republican state lawmakers are considering House Bill 370, which would require sheriffs to honor requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They say it’s meant to force sheriffs to get dangerous immigrants off the streets.

But sheriffs from Mecklenburg, Buncombe and Wake counties suspect the bill is about more than that. They oppose the bill because it infringes on their authority, among other things. And, on Wednesday, they pointed out the characteristics of the sheriffs affected most by the bill.

They are newly elected Democrats. They are from urban areas. And they are black.

“It doesn’t take much to see what’s going on here,” Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden asked the committee to “just respect us as sheriffs.” But, in a press conference preceding the meeting, he was more direct.

“It’s clearly about attacking a select group of sheriffs,” McFadden said. For proof, McFadden said to consider “disturbing” words legislators have used to described them. He referenced recent comments by state Sen. Dan Bishop, a congressional candidate who said McFadden and “other sanctuary sheriffs like him must be stopped.

Buncombe County’s Quentin Miller is among the sheriffs who don’t cooperate with ICE.

“We’re not urban sheriffs. We’re not sanctuary sheriffs. We’re sheriffs,” Miller said Wednesday.

Alas, the meeting didn’t go well for them.

As Republican Rep. Brenden Jones of Columbus County raised his voice and said the bill would “make these guys do what’s right,” McFadden and Baker walked out of the room.

And, after a man saying he was an undocumented immigrant interrupted the meeting by shouting and was ushered out, committee members endorsed the bill on a voice vote and adjourned the meeting.

‘In the dark’

When ICE learns that a person of interest has been arrested, it’ll sometimes issue a detainer request that asks a sheriff to hold the inmate until ICE can take custody.

Many North Carolina sheriffs comply with ICE. But some refuse, pointing out that ICE’s detainer requests aren’t legally binding documents and that sheriffs could face legal consequences if they hold an inmate beyond the terms of his jail sentence.

The Mecklenburg, Wake and Buncombe sheriffs spoke up this week because they said the NC Sheriffs Association, which endorsed the bill last week, doesn’t represent their views.

McFadden said he and others were “in the dark” about some of the association’s conversations about the bill. While McFadden said they plan on remaining part of the association, Baker added: “We’re looking up some things ourselves and trying to see what the options are and what’s the best way to move forward.”

When the bill was introduced, the association opposed it because members believed it threatened their operational independence. The initial version included language that the association feared allowed ICE wide-ranging access to inmates and records.

The association changed its position after lawmakers rewrote the bill to include the courts in the detention process. A new version now instructs law enforcement to, upon receiving an ICE detainer request, take the person in custody before a “state judicial official.” That official would then decide whether to allow continued detention of the inmate.

Concerned about removal

The committee on Wednesday approved another change, this time to the numbers of hours sheriffs would be required to detain a person sought by ICE.

A version considered last week authorized detention for 96 hours — which is twice as long as the typical 48-hour ICE detainer request. The committee voted to reduce the detention limit to 48 hours.

Even though the sheriffs association endorsed the bill, president James Clemmons on Wednesday expressed anxiety about a section that calls for the removal of sheriffs who don’t comply with ICE. Clemmons, the Richmond County sheriff, is also black.

Last week, association attorney Eddie Caldwell said his group wasn’t concerned with that part. That section doesn’t add a new removal procedure, but merely states that failing to cooperate with ICE would qualify as failing to perform one’s duty — something sheriffs can already be removed for under an existing state law.

But after the meeting, Clemmons declined to say whether the association’s support is contingent on lawmakers scrapping the section of the bill that could remove sheriffs.

Tense moments

The committee meeting room was as tense as it was full, with legislators snapping at each other and some crowd members testing the limits of audience participation.

Carmen Rodriguez, an advocate for immigrants, used a translator to call the bill “racist” and an “attack on immigrants.”

“Y’all are spitting in the face of democracy,” said the man who interrupted the meeting.

NC Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and bill sponsor, argued that it’s safer for ICE to pick up people in jails than on the streets.

Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg Democrat, noted that it costs sheriffs money to house inmates, but that there’s no cost estimate associated with the bill. Referencing the legislature’s Republican majority, Mohammed said it’s unusual for “this body” to pass something without knowing the cost.

Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, complained about state funds paying for “illegal” students in North Carolina public schools.

He also challenged Baker, the Wake sheriff, for saying he wanted “citizens and residents” to feel comfortable sharing information with deputies.

Horner asked if Baker served “citizens” or “residents.”

“Do you distinguish between the two?” Horner asked.

Baker got up from his chair and offered Horner one word.

“Residents.”

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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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