Raleigh, N.C. — As protests and marches mark the Day without Immigrants around the country Thursday, some North Carolina lawmakers are aiming for stronger local enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.
Two bills filed in the state House would subject local governments to loss of state funding and citizen lawsuits if they are deemed to be turning a blind eye to illegal immigration.
House Bill 63, titled the Citizens' Protection Act, would, among other things, order the state Department of Revenue to withhold funding from cities found to be in violation of the state's 2015 ban on so-called "sanctuary cities." That earlier law forbids local governments from limiting the enforcement of federal immigration laws by local law enforcement agencies, including any direction against or prohibition of gathering information on immigration.
Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, is one of the bill's sponsors. He acknowledged that immigration is a federal issue, but he said the state must take action because the federal government has abdicated its responsibility.
"We have rapists. We have murderers. We have a sundry group, gangs, that should not be here," Cleveland said. "It’s something we should not have allowed to happen. It’s something that the business community and politicians in the past have turned a blind eye to, and it’s cost us dearly, and it’s time to bring it to a stop."
Asked if he believes there are cities violating the sanctuary ban, Cleveland said yes, but he declined to name any. However, Republican lawmakers have at times named Charlotte, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem as likely offenders.
Charlotte has come under particular scrutiny after recent remarks by Mayor Jennifer Roberts were interpreted by some GOP lawmakers as dismissive of federal immigration laws.
Rep. Mary Belk, D-Mecklenburg, said that's not the case. The city has never declared itself a sanctuary city, she said, insisting that local law enforcement is appropriately enforcing all laws for which it is responsible.
"What they’re saying is, 'We have citizens here. We have people here. We’re in the business of doing business, and that’s what we’re about, and we’re not going out of our way to stop citizens because it’s unnecessary,'" Belk said. "I think that we all want the same thing in the end. We want safety for all of our citizens. We want to be business-friendly, which we always have been. We want our families to prosper."
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, who represents Carrboro and Chapel Hill, pointed out that there are no sanctuary cities in North Carolina due to the 2015 law. Law enforcement agencies in his district are concerned that immigration crackdown bills could make it harder for them to enforce existing laws, he said.
"In my community, we have a lot of immigrants and a lot of people who are concerned about immigrants and a lot of people who are trying to defend immigrants as good, contributing community members," Meyer said, "[Police] worry that, if immigrants are afraid of seeking support from law enforcement, then it just becomes more difficult for them to do their jobs."
Another bill sponsored by Cleveland, House Bill 113, would allow a private citizen to take legal action against cities, counties or even law enforcement agencies if he or she believes they are not enforcing immigration laws. That legal action could include fines of up to $10,000 per day if a judge agrees with the citizen.
Sovereign immunity generally forbids private citizens from taking legal action against government entities. But Cleveland said, in this case, an exception is warranted.
"I get reports that a lot of municipalities, cities and what-not are ignoring the state law on immigration, and the people who live there, this gives them the opportunity to either ignore it or take some action," he explained. "You know, if people take an oath, and the oath says you follow the law, and they break their oath, someone should have some recourse to say that’s a no-no."
Meyer said he believes the two bills are a reflection of the battle over immigration happening at the national level.
"Unfortunately, now we have legislators who want to take that fight into the courtroom with citizens being able to file suit against their municipalities," he said. "This is apparently going to be a political issue that we are going to have to have arguments on at every single level."
Cleveland emphasized that he is not opposed to legal immigration. He pointed out his two daughters-in-law are both legal immigrants.
"Hey, as long as you’re here legally, fine and dandy. Do whatever you want to do," he said. "But when you cross my borders and break the law, you’re not an immigrant, you’re a criminal, and I think that’s rather straightforward and honest."