RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans have retooled legislation intended to counter decisions by some new sheriffs who refuse to comply with written requests by federal immigration agents to hold criminal defendants.
The amended legislation eases somewhat a directive in the version that the N.C. House approved in April that would have forced sheriffs in the state to fulfill requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to put a “detainer” — basically just keeping in custody — on people charged with state crimes. Those documents aren’t arrest warrants, but if accepted, give ICE up to 48 hours to pick up suspects on the belief they are in the country unlawfully.
The changes won’t be voted on until next week, but the new language won the support of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, which represents the county sheriffs across the as a whole. The association had opposed the House version and had asked more time to find a compromise.
The retooled legislation heard by the N.C. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday sets out a process in which a judge or magistrate would order whether an inmate should be held on the detainer request based on whether the inmate is the same person identified in the request. The inmate could be held for up to 96 hours after a prisoner is otherwise qualified for release based on bond.
The 96-hour window aligns with the maximum time period before a criminal defendant must go before a judge for the first time, the sheriffs’ association said.
The Senate version “provides an appropriate and careful balance under the Constitution for the rights of the accused and for the public safety of our communities,” the association said in a news release Wednesday.
But immigration and civil rights advocates said the changes don’t ease the threat to immigrant communities in the state, particularly crime victims also in the country unlawfully who would be worried about coming forward to authorities to report a crime for fear of deportation.
The new version “remains an extreme anti-immigrant proposal that would spread fear across communities, tear apart families, erode community trust in law enforcement and expose sheriffs and local governments to costly litigation,” Alissa Ellis, an immigrant-rights strategist for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told legislators.
Immigrant groups have held several rallies against the House bill and urged Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to promise to veto it. Cooper’s office has said he had concerns about the House version.
A Cooper spokesman said he would review the new legislation.
Andrew Willis Garces of Greensboro, a spokesman for the Siembra NC, an immigrant advocacy group in the Triad, said that the updated bill is flawed.
County magistrates lack the experience to act as federal immigration judges to consider ICE detainers for immigrants in local jails who are suspected of being in the country illegally, Garces said.
“It’s an unconstitutional overreach,” he said of the bill.
Sheriffs elected last year in Forsyth, Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg and Buncombe counties — all Democrats — announced they wouldn’t honor the detainers. Accepting the detainers is voluntary, but sheriffs have cooperated with immigration officials for decades, bill supporters said.
“The sheriff’s job is to protect the community and if some of these folks don’t want to do that, then we here at the General Assembly will do what we need to do to make sure that those policies are stopped,” said state Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, the chief sponsor of the House bill.
Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said after the meeting that he still opposes the legislation. He said Durham County citizens elected him to “build relationships, to help combat crime and make our community safe,” but the bill doesn’t allow “me to do that any better.”
The updated bill also took out House provisions that would subject sheriffs who don’t comply with detainers or other state immigration laws to potential legal action with potentially large fines. But sherifsf could still be removed from office if they don’t follow this law, the bill says.
Democrats on the Senate committee called the bill unnecessary and said it would still open up local governments and sheriffs to litigation.
Sheriffs already are required by state law to determine whether people charged with felonies or impaired driving and put in their jails are lawful U.S. residents. The new legislation expands that to people charged with any criminal offense.
The detainer issue has spilled over into North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District do-over election. Republican nominee Dan Bishop, who is also a state senator, has called on Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden to resign for his immigration-policy changes.
At issue is a case where a suspect arrested twice on local charges last month related to domestic violence was released, then arrested by ICE soon after.