North Carolina bill compelling sheriffs to aid ICE advances as first major bill this year

A House bill that directs North Carolina sheriffs to comply with requests by federal agents interested in picking up jail inmates they believe are in the country has picked up steam again

Makiya Seminera
Tuesday 30 April 2024 20:08 BST

A bill that would require North Carolina sheriffs to comply with requests by federal agents interested in picking up jail inmates believed to be in the country illegally passed a Senate committee Tuesday, making it the first major legislation to advance in this year's work session.

The bill already cleared the House last year but stalled in the Senate until it was approved by the chamber's judiciary committee on a voice vote. The Senate action signals the measure is a priority for state Republicans who now hold narrow veto-proof majorities in both chambers. A full Senate vote could come later this week.

Two earlier editions of the bill passed the legislature in 2019 and 2022, only to be successfully vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper because Democrats held more seats than today. GOP election gains mean Republicans can override a potential Cooper veto this year if they stay united. Cooper has said a previous version was “only about scoring political points” by the GOP on immigration.

The bill essentially requires sheriffs or jailers in all 100 counties to hold inmates accused of violent felonies or some misdemeanors up to 48 hours if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued what's called a detainer. It also requires the involvement of judicial officials to order law enforcement to hold the inmate in question, according to the bill.

In an ICE detainer request, immigration agents ask to be notified before the release from a local jail of a defendant whom the agency believes is in the country unlawfully.

Sheriffs or other law enforcement officials already are tasked with checking an inmate’s legal status if they are charged with serious crimes, according to state law. If a determination cannot be made on someone’s legal status, a query should be sent to ICE.

But not all sheriffs are following through with those queries, said Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and a sponsor of the bill who spoke at Tuesday's committee hearing. Hall added that a group of sheriffs — primarily Democrats from urban counties — have resisted compliance with detainers, which critics say aren’t true arrest warrants. He said those shortcomings inspired a need for the bill.

“To me, it is amazing that we have to have a bill like this,” Hall said. “It seems to be common sense that law enforcement should cooperate with one another.”

Hall said the bill would make communities safer. He cited incidents where federal immigration officers should have been contacted about an inmate, but they were later released and went on to commit more crimes.

Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, a Republican, spoke in support of the legislation, saying it would “remove criminal offenders from our communities.”

Most public speakers during the hearing opposed the measure, however. Lawyers, activists and small business owners voiced concern that the bill could lead to North Carolina’s immigrant community feeling unsafe and unwelcome.

The legislation also raises serious constitutional concerns of due process violations and causes more problems for law enforcement, said Sejal Zota, legal director with the Just Futures Law group, which assists immigrants.

“The bill interferes with communities and sheriffs’ decisions about local resources and priorities, exposes sheriffs and counties to expensive lawsuits for constitutional violation and further erodes community trust in law enforcement,” said Andressia Ramirez of the North Carolina Justice Center, which advocates for low-income residents.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, one of the Democratic sheriffs who doesn't comply with detainer requests, said last week the bill is an “absolutely” political move that unfairly targets sheriffs in urban counties. But he said he would comply with the law if the bill should be enacted — even if he had some questions on how it would affect county resources.

An amendment approved Tuesday by the committee in part would allow anyone to file a complaint with state Attorney General’s Office if the person alleged a sheriff or jail administrator wasn’t abiding by the proposed legislation. The attorney general could then ask a judge to force the jailer to comply.

The bill must clear one more Senate committee. Wilson County Republican Sen. Buck Newton, a judiciary committee co-chairman, told reporters it was a “reasonable expectation” for the bill to be voted on the Senate floor this week. The House also would have to formally agree to the Senate changes for it to reach Cooper's desk.

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