RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans gave final legislative approval on Tuesday to a measure directing all sheriffs comply with requests by federal immigration agents to hold inmates they believe are in the country unlawfully.
The measure responds to a handful of dissenting sheriffs — black Democrats elected last year. They have been refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the detainers it issues in connection with those believed to be in the country illegally.
The detainers, asking an inmate be held for 48 hours, aren't arrest warrants, so sheriffs currently can ignore them. But GOP legislators point out recent cases in Mecklenburg County, where violent suspects who were subjects of detainers had been released.
The sheriffs "are putting partisan policies ahead of public safety," said bill sponsor Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican, during floor debate. "The citizens of this state deserve public safety. If these sheriffs won't give it to them, we will through this bill."
But the House's party-line 62-53 vote to accept Senate changes to the bill signals that a likely veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper could ultimately block its enactment. Well over 100 national and North Carolina groups also on Tuesday urged a veto from Cooper, who two months ago called the same legislation now going to his desk unconstitutional. Republicans would need help from several Democrats to override any veto.
"We already have laws on the books that allow us to put in jail dangerous people regardless of immigration status. And I fear this legislation is going to be used for political purposes to try and divide us," Cooper told reporters earlier Tuesday. He added that the sheriffs "were elected by people and they're doing things that they believe people want them to do to keep their communities safe."
The legislation requires the sheriff take a detainer subject to a judge or magistrate, who would issue any order to hold the inmate. The bill also would require sheriffs to check the records of anyone jailed for an alleged criminal offense — not just those accused of serious crimes as current law requires — to see if they are sought by federal immigrant agents.
Sheriffs who don't comply would be removed from office — a possibility that angered some Democrats who say the sheriffs are constitutional officers who ran on ending voluntary cooperation with ICE.
Critics of the measure say the directives will make members of immigrant communities fearful in urban areas of coming forward to report crimes to authorities for fear of deportation. The bill also could lead to costly litigation by people who alleged their due process rights were violated by being held on the detainers, even after meeting other release terms.
"This is unnecessary. It is draconian and will affect and rip apart families across this state," said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat and former District Court judge. "To pass this bill is going to result in many lawsuits that are going to be paid by the taxpayers in their community."
But Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, said the measure properly strikes a balance between protecting a person's assumption of innocence and ensuring the public is protected.
"There comes a time when even someone who is politically elected should be able to put aside politics and do what is right for the public safety," Moore said.
The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, representing all sheriffs, initially opposed an initial House version of the measure but later backed the bill when language was changed in the Senate.
Despite Cooper's criticisms of the bill, immigrant and civil rights advocates worried aloud what would happen if the bill became law and pleaded for him to intervene.
"It's important that our state's highest elected official take a stand for the rights of North Carolina communities and against this extreme anti-immigrant political agenda," Martha Hernandez, community organizer with the local group Comite de Accion Popular, said in a release.