NC immigration bill pits sheriffs against the Constitution. What will they do? | Opinion

One of the great illusions in politics is that the Republican Party always supports law enforcement.

If that were true, Republicans wouldn’t encourage the proliferation of guns, former President Donald Trump’s supporters wouldn’t attack U.S. Capitol Police officers, and the GOP wouldn’t be about to give its presidential nomination to a man facing charges in four criminal cases.

And in North Carolina, Republicans wouldn’t be trying to force sheriffs to ignore the Constitution and compromise public safety. But that’s where the alleged law-and-order party is going as the General Assembly prepares to open its short session Wednesday.

For the fourth time in five years, Republican state lawmakers will try to pass a law requiring sheriffs to hold for up to 48 hours arrested people who may be in the U.S. illegally. The detention would provide a window for agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE, to take the detainees into federal custody for possible deportation.

The proposed ICE cooperation requirement – twice vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper and stalled in the state Senate last session – is likely to become law this time. Republicans have a veto-proof majority and cracking down on migrants is a red-meat issue for Republicans in an election year.

Iliana Santillan, executive director of the Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo, said, “Once again, our immigrant communities are being used as pawns for political and electoral gains by our representatives who should be working to protect us.”

Sheriffs in smaller counties support the proposed law, House Bill 10, but those in the state’s largest counties don’t. When similar legislation was considered last year, 11 sheriffs signed a letter opposing it. They say the proposed law would add costs to local taxpayers, expose sheriff’s offices to lawsuits and make it harder to solve crimes.

Beyond all that, the proposed law is redundant. State law already requires sheriffs to alert ICE when they arrest someone who may be in the U.S. illegally. The issue is whether sheriffs should continue to hold people who have made bail or are otherwise eligible for release.

“When a person is arrested and we determine that we don’t know the citizenship, we contact ICE and they send a detainer,” said Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden. “But the law says we can’t hold them after they have met all the criteria for being released.”

McFadden added, “Can you hold this guy? Under whose authority? You are going to force us to house these people – not arrest these people – house them.”

Nonetheless, McFadden said, “If this becomes law, we will follow the law.”

Passing a state law forcing sheriffs to hold people who are eligible for release won’t resolve the constitutional issue. It will, however, pass the costs of holding detainees on to county taxpayers and could expose the sheriffs to lawsuits. McFadden said his office recently paid $80,000 in legal fees contesting such a lawsuit.

Beyond raising constitutional questions, the proposed law will do the opposite of what its backers claim about how it will improve public safety. Making sheriffs an extension of ICE will weaken the ability of sheriffs to respond to crimes. If migrants think interaction with a sheriff will expose them or their family members to deportation, they are unlikely to report crimes or help with arrests and prosecutions.

Wake County Sheriff Willie Rowe said, “I want to make our communities safer, but HB 10 will make us less safe by fomenting distrust in local law enforcement,” he said in a statement. “No one should fear interacting with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office because of their federal immigration status.”

The fourth time will likely be a charm for this ill-conceived legislation. It will help Republicans’ reelection efforts, but – as the sheriffs of North Carolina’s largest counties make clear – it will hurt law enforcement.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@