Under the Dome: What AG Josh Stein does, and doesn’t, say about the ICE cooperation bill

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, left, and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, right, will move on to North Carolina’s general election for governor in 2024.

Welcome to your governor’s race edition of our Under the Dome newsletter. I’m Dawn Vaughan, Capitol bureau chief at The News & Observer.

Immigration is a national topic this election year in the presidential campaign, and it’s showing up in the governor’s race, too. Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Immigration is also an ongoing topic at the General Assembly, and a bill that requires sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers passed the House last session and is on the move again this session.

House Bill 10 is now waiting for the Senate to appoint conference committee members so Senate and House members can sort out what they want the final bill to look like before it goes to a vote. It is likely to pass once Republicans, who control both chambers, come to an agreement. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is likely to veto it, but Republicans have enough votes to override vetoes.

One version of the bill involved the attorney general being the one to enforce the law. The candidates for attorney general are Democratic U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson and Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop.

Stein, who is attorney general until the end of the year, has been asked multiple times by The News & Observer and other news outlets about his stance on the bill. He hasn’t answered directly with an affirmative or negative. This past week I asked him again, as he led a news conference with several sheriffs talking about public safety.

ICE issues detainer requests to law enforcement agencies that have arrested people on criminal charges who the agency, it says, “has probable cause to believe are removable non-citizens.” This came up in March when ICE requested a detainer after the arrest of a man in Gates County, which Robinson held a news conference about asking more information about the suspect.

As I noted then, ICE is empowered to take custody of some immigrants, but courts have ruled that law enforcement agencies have the right to ignore the detainers because they’re requests seeking voluntary compliance. The push for the ICE bill is led by House Rules Chair Destin Hall and generally supported by Republicans. I asked Stein what he thinks of the ICE bill and the U.S. southern border.

Border control

“We need to strengthen controls at the border,” Stein said. “... We have to do it from an immigration perspective. Folks who come to this country should come invited, they shouldn’t come of their own accord crossing the border.”

In connection to the ICE bill, Stein responded by saying that when he talks with law enforcement, he asks, “What do they need? And what I hear time and time again, is we want to keep people safe by having enough people on the job. And this is what folks are talking about. I trust them to be able to make the right decisions in their communities about keeping people safe.”

Stein, who is the state’s top cop, wouldn’t answer specifically about HB 10.

“Folks need to understand that if you commit a crime in this state, no matter your immigration status, you will be held accountable,” Stein said.

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that HB 10 “will not have an impact on this crisis we’re dealing with” involving fentanyl, which some have pointed to as a reason to strengthen the southern border.

“Fentanyl and the drugs that are coming to our communities are already here. The precursor for fentanyl comes from China. So passing a bill to force sheriffs to cooperate with ICE is not going to be effective at all,” Birkhead said. “What it will do is damage our relationship with our immigrant communities.”

Robinson rarely presiding over the Senate

One of the few duties of the lieutenant governor is to preside over the Senate. But for at least the past five years, including when former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest was in office, the person presiding over the Senate on most days is Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who holds the most power at the General Assembly along with House Speaker Tim Moore. The lieutenant governor is the president of the Senate, but his or her only role there aside from presiding is to vote if there is a tie. There is an office near the Senate chamber designated for the lieutenant governor’s use.

Robinson presides only occasionally, though Senate sessions are on his official calendar, according to records obtained by The N&O that I wrote about earlier this year.

I asked Berger this past week how he and Robinson sort out who will preside over the Senate sessions.

“So generally,” Berger said, “if he wants to preside, he’ll call the clerk’s office and let them know that he’s planning to come. And I’ll hear from the clerk’s office, generally in advance of the day’s session whether he’s going to be here or not, whether or not I’ll preside.”

Stay informed

Don’t forget to follow our Under the Dome tweets and listen to our Under the Dome podcast to stay up to date. Our new episode posts Monday morning, and I’m joined by state Rep. Caleb Rudow, an Asheville Democrat. Rudow led a bipartisan sing-along outside the Legislative Building this past week, and the podcast includes a clip of lawmakers singing. I interviewed Rudow in his legislative office the next day about why he wants to do bipartisan events, how friendships are maintained in both parties and why he decided not to run for reelection. Instead, he’s running for Congress in a district that heavily favors a Republican.

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