@NCCapitol

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Metro sheriffs feel targeted by legislation requiring ICE relationship

Posted June 19, 2019 12:34 p.m. EDT
Updated June 19, 2019 11:13 p.m. EDT

— Sheriffs from North Carolina's urban counties said Wednesday that Republican lawmakers have put a target on their backs with pending legislation that could have them removed from office if they don't cooperate with federal immigration officials.

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.

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 in jail for immigration agents, even if they have finished serving their sentences or posted bond.

"House Bill 370 is not about protecting our communities. It's not about making our communities safe. House Bill 370 is clearly about attacking a select group of sheriffs," McFadden said at a news conference.

Baker noted 287(g) is a voluntary program and that the legislation "is trying to force us to do something that the federal government has given us the option to do."

The bill passed the House in April, and a revised version of it cleared the Senate Judiciary committee on Wednesday afternoon and could be on the Senate floor by early next week.

The updated version 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 48-hour limit was reduced from 96 hours in committee on Wednesday.

Immigrant advocates have already called on Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill once it emerges from the General Assembly, and they staged a demonstration during the committee hearing Wednesday and had to be removed from the room.

"Look at me and remember my face. It is the face of the community you are attacking directly," Carmen Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant, told committee members.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said the forced cooperation with ICE turns sheriffs' deputies into de facto immigration agents, putting Latinx crime victims at risk because their communities would be more wary about calling local law enforcement.

"It's indisputable there will be negative consequences," Marcus said. "Don't tell me the only way to protect public safety is to pass this law."

Bill sponsor Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, said detainers apply only to people charged with crimes, not to victims or witnesses.

"The federal government is going to enforce immigration law, regardless of what any state does," Hall said, adding that it's safer for ICE agents to take people in the country illegally into custody from a jail than to conduct raids in neighborhoods or at businesses.

The bill also would allow a judge to remove any law enforcement officer or sheriff from office for failing to cooperate with immigration officials.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, called the removal provision "repugnant."

"They're trying to intimidate sheriffs to comply with these [immigration] laws," McKissick said. "On a multitude of levels, this bill should not become law, and if it does become law, I hope that it will be challenged immediately."

Some courts have said ICE detainers, which aren't approved by any judge, violate the Constitution.

"They're on a fast track to remove us," McFadden said, calling the removal provision "unprecedented" for an elected official. "House Bill 370 is now mixing politics with our policies."

He told committee members he has no problem holding people in the country illegally in jail if ICE provides him with a federal warrant, but he said a detainer isn't sufficient.

"The disrespect that we have received, no matter how you say it, to sit here like we're not in the room and say things about us is unacceptable, and I don't think we've ever had that when you're talking about sheriffs," McFadden said. "Just respect us as sheriffs."

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association supports the bill – it initially was opposed – but Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons, the group's president, said they want the removal provision taken out.

McFadden, Baker and other sheriffs expressed frustration that the state association backs the bill. They said they weren't consulted about the change in position, and Baker said he and his colleagues are looking at their options.

"We all may have some immigration concerns, but at the end of the day, I'm more concerned about being able to help a community of people who reside in this county just the way I'm able to help any other community," Baker said.