Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill passed by the N.C. General Assembly that would force North Carolina’s 100 sheriffs to comply with detainers issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on jail inmates who are suspected of being in the country illegally.

“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina,” Cooper, who previously was the N.C. attorney general, said in a statement. “As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.

“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,” Cooper said. “Finally, to elevate their partisan political pandering, the legislature has made a sheriff’s violation of this new immigration duty as the only specifically named duty violation that can result in a sheriff’s removal from office.”

Cooper returned to the bill to the clerk of the N.C. House, which had voted 62-53 Tuesday to approve the legislation, House Bill 370.

ICE detainers can keep people in jail for longer than they would normally would be, based on their charges.

Among Forsyth County’s legislative delegation in Raleigh, state Reps. Debra Conrad, Donny Lambeth and Lee Zachary, all Republicans, voted for the legislation. State Reps. Evelyn Terry and Derwin Montgomery as well as state Sen. Paul Lowe, all Democrats, voted against the bill.

The N.C. Senate voted 25-18 on June 24 to approve an amended version of the bill. State Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, was absent and didn’t cast a ballot on the legislation.

The legislation outlines 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 an ICE request.

Under the legislation, the inmate could be held for up to 48 hours after a prisoner would otherwise be qualified for release on bond. The bill would allow a Superior Court judge to remove a sheriff or police officer who didn’t follow the legislation’s provisions and failed cooperate with ICE agents.

Krawiec said Wednesday that she had left the Senate chamber on June 24 to present one of her bills to a House committee and missed the Senate vote on HB370.

Krawiec said she supports the legislation.

“This bill simply requires sheriffs to do their job and comply with ICE detainers,” she said in an email. “Almost all of the sheriffs in our state are already complying. This bill would treat illegal immigrants the same way citizens are treated who are in our jails.

“I am disappointed that the governor has chosen to side with criminals instead of choosing law and order and the safety of our citizens,” Krawiec said. “He has proven himself to be a ‘sanctuary governor’ and that is not in the best interests of North Carolina.”

Lowe said he shares Cooper’s concerns about the bill and supports the governor’s veto.

Lowe said he particularly dislikes the bill’s provision that sheriffs could be removed from office for not complying with the legislation.

“All of the sheriffs want to keep us protected,” Lowe said.

Zachary questioned whether Cooper had read the bill.

“If he has read the bill, he would see that it requires sheriffs to see if there is a detainer for a defendant before the defendant is released, possibly to never show up again for court,” Zachary said. The bill “may not be perfect, but it is aimed at those sheriff’s that ‘thumb their noses’ at immigration laws.”

Conrad, Lambeth, Terry, and Montgomery couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment.

Republican legislators maintain the bill would protect public safety and that it targets jail inmates who have been charged with crimes and who are living in the U.S. illegally.

Several Republican House members have pointed to the case of Oscar Pacheco Leonardo, 33, who was arrested in Charlotte on June 14 on charges of first-degree rape and indecent liberties with a minor. He was deported in July 2006, officials said, but later re-entered the country, a felony under federal law.

Upon his arrest, ICE issued an immigration detainer — a request from the agency to hold him in jail until ICE officers could assume custody. But two days later, on June 16, Pacheco was released from the Mecklenburg County jail after posting a $100,000 bond. ICE officers arrested him directly on Aug. 9.

Sheriff Garry McFadden of Mecklenburg County said that Pacheco’s release from jail was consistent with his policies. McFadden was elected in November 2018 as he campaigned on a platform of ignoring these voluntary ICE detainer requests

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said that Leonardo’s release from the jail was an outrage.

“This is bigger than politics, this is about public safety,” Moore said in a statement.

“And while I am not surprised the governor decided to veto it, I am immensely disappointed.”

Democratic legislators say the bill is unconstitutional and unnecessary and would keep undocumented immigrants who are crime victims from reporting offenses to law-enforcement agencies.

Civil rights groups and immigrant advocacy organizations also oppose the legislation, saying that it’s unconstitutional and unfairly targets urban black sheriffs who have said they will not work with ICE agents in their counties.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina praised Cooper for vetoing the bill.

“House Bill 370 seeks to undo the will of voters across the state by forcing democratically elected sheriffs to do ICE’s bidding and help the Trump administration carry out its brutal deportation agenda,” said Alissa Ellis, the ACLU’s regional immigrants’ rights strategist.

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. of Forsyth County opposes the bill but has said he would comply with the legislation if it became law.

“The three criteria I use to weigh my decisions are: Is it moral? Is it legal? And is it right?,” Kimbrough said Wednesday. “In light of those three questions, I did not agree with the proposed bill and I support the governor’s decision.

“In the county of Forsyth,” Kimbrough said, “we will continue to treat every person who lives here with respect. We will provide the highest level of service and protection, as we have always done.”

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jhinton@wsjournal.com 336-727-7299 @jhintonWSJ

The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

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