@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Cooper vetoes bill requiring sheriffs to honor ICE detainers

Posted August 21, 2019 12:39 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2019 7:54 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper wasted no time in vetoing legislation requiring North Carolina sheriffs to hold county jail inmates wanted by federal immigration officials for possible deportation.

Less than 24 hours after the House gave final approval to House Bill 370, Cooper said he wouldn't sign it into law.

"This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina," Cooper said in a statement. "As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.

"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," the governor continued. "Finally, to elevate their partisan political pandering, the legislature has made a sheriff’s violation of this new immigration duty as the only specifically named duty violation that can result in a sheriff’s removal from office."

Republican sponsors of House Bill 370 immediately blasted the move, calling Cooper "a sanctuary governor" who is ignoring public safety.

"How can he choose to abandon the citizens of North Carolina and their safety?" Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, a primary sponsor of the bill, said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "This governor has chosen to side with illegal aliens – illegal criminals – over the citizens of North Carolina."

House Bill 370 would require police and sheriffs to check everyone they arrest against the federal immigration database and, if requested, to hold them on detainer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Bill sponsors have said the proposal is designed to protect public safety, citing cases where people in the U.S. illegally who have been charged with crimes commit more crimes after being released from jail on bond, including a case in Mecklenburg County last week.

"The overwhelming majority of North Carolinians believe law enforcement ought to be working together," said bill sponsor Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell. "They believe that our sheriffs ought to be working with federal law enforcement officials."

But immigrant advocates and other groups praised Cooper for rejecting the bill, saying it would create a rift between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

"The rhetoric used at the General Assembly and in the media has sent a message that certain people are to be feared. It aligns well with the type of white supremacist belief system that led to the mass shooting in El Paso [Texas] and other incidents of hate speech, violence, and criminalization against immigrants and people of color across North Carolina and the U.S.," Angeline Echeverría, executive director of advocacy group El Pueblo said in a statement.

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker, Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden and several other sheriffs elected last fall campaigned on building stronger relationships with their local Latinx communities, which they said have been reluctant to report problems to law enforcement because some residents fear being deported.

Since then, the sheriffs have dropped out of the federal 287(g) program that allows local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people arrested and no longer honor detainers to hold people who have finished serving their sentences or posted bond in jail for immigration agents.

The sheriffs have said they feel targeted by the legislation, which calls for a sheriff who doesn't comply to be removed from office.

The bill, backed by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, sets out a process in which a judge or magistrate would order whether an inmate should be held on a detainer request, based on whether the inmate is the same person identified in the request. The inmate could be held for up to 48 hours after a prisoner is otherwise qualified to be released on bond.

The bill passed the General Assembly along party lines, and Democratic opponents noted that the federal government doesn't require local law enforcement to honor ICE detainers and that holding people in jail after they've served their sentences or have posted bond could open sheriffs up to lawsuits. They also said members of the Latino community might be less inclined to cooperate with a sheriff's office, even if they're crime victims, if the office is cooperating with ICE.

"This is bigger than politics. This is about public safety," House Speaker Tim Moore said. "This is about saying, when someone has committed crimes, they ought to stay in custody."

Because the GOP no longer has a veto-proof majority in the legislature, it’s not clear whether Cooper's veto will be overridden.