The governor stands with sheriffs against a misguided NC immigration bill

The Republican Party has long billed itself as the “law and order” party, but when it comes to undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, the party has turned to giving an order to the law.

The Republican-led General Assembly made that demand by passing House Bill 370. It requires local law enforcement officials to detain people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally until they can be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). HB 370 was a slap at sheriffs mostly in urban areas — including Wake and Mecklenburg counties — who say they will not hold undocumented immigrants for ICE. They say, correctly, that enforcing immigration laws is a federal responsibility. They add that doing ICE’s work diverts local resources, can require holding suspects longer than a charge allows and makes it less likely that Hispanic communities will trust or cooperate with their departments.

Fortunately, North Carolina has a real and order man as its governor. Roy Cooper, who during 16 years as attorney general served as the state’s top law enforcement officer, vetoed HB 370 Wednesday. In his veto message, the governor said: “This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties.”

HB 370’s Republican backers say ICE detentions are about keeping dangerous criminals off the streets, but judges and sheriffs already have the legal power to do that. What the bill really is about is exploiting fears about Hispanic immigrants and punishing sheriffs who campaigned on a promise to treat undocumented people fairly under the law.

The veto brought a predictable objection from Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson), who said the governor “is more concerned about protecting the ‘rights’ of people in this country illegally who are in jail for committing crimes than he is about protecting the safety of our communities and the citizens that live in them.”

Edwards is using citizens selectively. The sheriffs he considers at fault were elected by citizens who supported the sheriffs’ pledges to take their departments out of the federal deportation pipeline. ICE detentions can lead to families being ripped apart because of a traffic violation or a minor offense — and many members of those affected families are U.S. citizens.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, who ran on a promise to stop honoring voluntary ICE detainers, said after the bill passed the House that, “HB 370 sets a terrible precedent by allowing the legislature to take away the authority of each duly elected sheriff in North Carolina to make discretionary decisions in the best interest of his or her constituents.”

Beyond the clear issues of HB 370’s cruelty and its dubious legality, the effort to pander to nativism is bad for the economy. Bob Page, CEO of the Replacements Ltd., a china and glassware company in McLeansville whose employees include many immigrants, put the issue well in a recent commentary:

“As we’ve seen with other bills discriminating against minorities, such as HB2, taking a harsh stance as a state makes North Carolina appear to be over-reactive and unwelcoming. The perception that we are fearful of people who differ from us ultimately costs our state jobs when companies choose to go elsewhere rather than invest in North Carolina and our future.”

The governor’s veto isn’t about protecting undocumented immigrants. It is about protecting all of North Carolina from another episode of mean-spirited and likely illegal legislation that would set back the state and weaken its economy.