North Carolina’s rural Richmond County is no one’s idea of a liberal bastion, and it has only a tiny immigrant population. Yet the federal government – implementing an executive order by President Donald Trump targeting “sanctuary” cities – has included Richmond County on a list of local governments that aren’t cooperating with efforts to deport people.
That was news to local officials.
“I can promise the (county) commissioners would be surprised to hear that,” Richmond County Manager Rick Sago said when The News & Observer informed him of the county’s inclusion on the list published last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Trump said in his order the list should be used “to better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions.” And federal money is at stake. On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would withhold Department of Justice funding from places that ICE deems uncooperative. Sessions said he would also “claw back” funding that had already been given out.
Sago, however, said Richmond County does not have even an informal “sanctuary” policy, let alone an official one.
Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons is a Democrat whose office runs the county jail where ICE claimed its request for help was denied. He said his office always cooperates with ICE or any other federal agency asking for deputies’ help.
Just 4 percent of Richmond County’s 45,000 people were born outside the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about half the statewide average.
“Very seldom do we deal with anything (related to immigration),” Clemmons said. “And when there is a federal detainer, or the agency is looking for an individual in our community, we give them assistance.”
So why did ICE accuse his office of refusing to help on a recent case?
Clemmons said it’s a case of mistaken identity.
“We don’t have anything to do with that,” he said. “The detainer was not on anyone who was in our facility.”
Clemmons said he spoke to an ICE employee who acknowledged the mistake and promised to fix it.
“They made the mistake ... and as far as I’m concerned, it’s taken care of,” Clemmons said.
However, a new report released Wednesday that corrected some mistakes from the original March 20 list didn’t mention Richmond County. A spokesman for ICE did not immediately respond to a question about whether that meant the agency was standing by its inclusion of Richmond County.
When ICE learns that someone jailed in a state or local facility might be in violation of federal immigration laws, the agency can get a warrant to take that person into custody after release.
But in tens of thousands of cases, ICE instead requests the local authorities hold that person without a warrant.
The places that refused to cooperate – which have done so for a variety of political or practical reasons – found themselves on ICE’s public naughty list.
“When law enforcement agencies fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect the public safety and carry out its mission,” ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, said in a written statement accompanying the initial list.
Since 2005, Richmond County has received 11 grants worth more than $215,000 from the DOJ, including $100,000 since 2010.
The scant details included on ICE’s list make it difficult to independently confirm its accusations. ICE said the Richmond County jail refused a warrantless detainer request for a Guatemalan citizen who was being released after serving a conviction for identity theft.
Clemmons said his jail held no such person. And the ICE report doesn’t give the person’s name, gender, place of arrest, place of residence, date of offense, date of conviction, case number or any other information that could help clear up confusion.
There are three other Richmond Counties in the United States – in Georgia (Augusta), New York (Staten Island) and Virginia (Warsaw).
Richmond County’s local politics are dominated by Democrats, including Clemmons and most of the county commissioners.
But Trump beat Hillary Clinton there in November by more than 10 percentage points, which was twice as much as his statewide margin of victory.
“We certainly want to cooperate” with immigration officials, Sago said.
And Clemmons, who is also the first vice president of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, said every county around the state works with ICE.
At the state level, a 2015 law made it illegal for a city or county to have an official sanctuary policy. And a bill winding its way through the N.C. General Assembly would allow the GOP-controlled legislature to withhold some state funding from any local government deemed to be a sanctuary city or county.
Elsewhere in the state, Durham police officials recently suspended traffic checkpoints after an immigration-related local outcry. And police officials in Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have told The News & Observer that immigration violations aren’t a top priority for their officers.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran