North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper testifies in Washington in February.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper testifies in Washington in February. Cliff Owen/AP

North Carolina Sheriffs Win a Round Against ICE

Republican lawmakers had sought to make counties help enforce immigration law.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a bill yesterday that would have required the state’s sheriffs to cooperate with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina,” Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “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.”

As I wrote last month, the bill, H.B. 370, was a flash point for fights about immigration enforcement, criminal-justice reform, race relations, urban-rural relations, and federalism. Cooper’s veto spelled the end of this legislation, but the tensions it demonstrated remain.

“We wanted this to settle down so we can go on to our real work in our communities,” Sheriff Garry McFadden of Mecklenburg County told me yesterday afternoon. “Politics and law enforcement shouldn’t be mixed. It has created a hostile environment in our community.”

North Carolina is a national laboratory for partisan conflict, and the conflicts between more liberal sheriffs and conservative legislatures, as well as the federal government, are only set to grow. It is also the epicenter of the sheriff-reform movement: The state’s seven biggest counties elected African American candidates in November, several of them for the first time ever. Many of these new sheriffs ran for office on progressive platforms, promising jail reforms and especially new immigration approaches.

Until fairly recently, immigration was a mostly federal matter, but over the past two decades Washington has worked with sheriffs—traditionally a heavily white, male, and conservative group—to enforce immigration laws, especially through jails, which sheriffs control.

When someone is arrested, his or her name is entered in an FBI database. ICE can check that database to find people who have illegally entered the country and issue a request, called a detainer, to a sheriff to hold that person until ICE can come and arrest them. Several new North Carolina sheriffs announced they would not honor detainers. They argued that working with ICE discourages immigrants from reporting crimes to local law enforcement. Moreover, they contended that detainers violate the Constitution, because they ask a sheriff to hold someone who has met conditions for release, like posting bail. And they stressed that despite accusations that they were flouting the law, cooperation with ICE is voluntary.

McFadden became the face of the group, partly because Mecklenburg County includes the state’s largest city, Charlotte, and partly because he’s outspoken.

“All I’m asking ICE to do is this: Bring me a criminal warrant, and I’ll hold anybody for you,” McFadden told me in May. “I have 400-plus federal inmates in my detention center right now. You bring me that paper, I got a place to put them. Other than that, you’re gonna fight with me the whole time.”

And they did. ICE repeatedly criticized McFadden publicly, accusing him of making the county less safe when a man was released despite a detainer and then committed crimes while out on bond. The Republican-led general assembly, meanwhile, began work on the bill to require sheriffs to honor detainers. That set up several tense interactions between McFadden and his fellow sheriffs on one side and GOP members of the legislature on the other.

In late June, after Cooper announced his opposition to the bill, lawmakers seemed to put it on the back burner. But last week, ICE issued a statementabout another unauthorized immigrant who was arrested in Mecklenburg County, released, and then broke the law again, and then Republican leaders turned their attention back to the bill.

While both the final passage of the bill and Cooper’s veto were expected, the one late surprise was Republicans’s apparent willingness to concede the sheriffs’, and Democrats’, complaint that the detainers violate constitutional rights, which extend to noncitizens.

“By putting my name on this bill, and hopefully getting it into the law, that it keeps one person from being assaulted again, one person from maybe being murdered, or one person from being raped, because we inconvenienced a criminal for 48 hours? I’ll take that,” Representative Brenden Jones said late in Tuesday’s debate on the bill. (Representative Marcia Morey, a Democrat and former state judge, rose, incredulous, to ask whether Jones really believed everyone in jail was a criminal.)

In a statement responding to Cooper’s veto, Senator Chuck Edwards likewise mocked the idea of protecting civil rights.

“Despite Governor Cooper’s attempt to distract folks with reckless rhetoric and name calling, the message this veto sends is abundantly clear: He 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 said.

Perhaps these statements simply reflect Republicans’ frustrations about the viability of their legislation, but they do nothing to support the bill on the merits. Any effort at law and order that requires discarding the Constitution isn’t an effort at law and order at all.