Sheriffs and lawmakers clash as immigration bill passes Senate panel

By: - June 20, 2019 5:00 am

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden has been outspoken about his opposition to House Bill 370, an anti-immigration measure introduced by GOP lawmakers. He believes the legislation targets newly-elected sheriffs, who all happen to be African-American and who all oppose working with federal immigration officials more than what the law requires. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Don’t call them urban sheriffs.

Don’t refer to them as sanctuary sheriffs.

And don’t identify them as super minority-majority sheriffs.

They are seven newly-elected African-American sheriffs being targeted by anti-immigration legislation, and they’re calling on lawmakers to rebuke an effort to remove them from office because of their political ideologies.

“House Bill 370 is now mixing politics with our policies and strictly is trying to erode the office of the sheriff for the very first time,” said Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden. “Yes, we are newly elected sheriffs; yes, we are progressive; and yes, we stand together to oppose 370.”

He was joined by Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker and Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller at a press conference Wednesday to speak out against HB 370. The measure would force sheriffs across the state to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or face removal from office – an unprecedented threat to democratically elected law enforcement.

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker spoke out Wednesday against House Bill 370, an anti-immigration measure that would force state law enforcement to work with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Sheriffs currently have discretion on whether or not to enforce ICE detainers, which are requests to hold undocumented immigrants alleged to have committed a federal crime in county jails for up to 48 hours.

Most of the sheriffs in the state opt to honor the requests, but several of the newly elected sheriffs – who run the largest counties in North Carolina – refuse. In fact, they were elected on a platform to end voluntary cooperation with ICE and strengthen relationships with immigrant communities.

“This legislation is about forcing us to do something the federal government gives us the option to do,” Baker said at the press conference.

The sheriffs spoke ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in which lawmakers were scheduled to consider HB 370. Baker and McFadden spoke in opposition during the committee meeting too.

“I’m not breaking any laws,” Baker said. “As sheriff of this county, I am committed to making sure that I provide service to every person who resides here, citizen or not.”

Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell)

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), said at the meeting that the measure was an effort to keep communities safe from “illegal immigrants” accused of committing a crime. Hall added that failing to cooperate with ICE detainers would not deter federal agents from enforcing immigration law.

“Except now they have to go into a factory, into a neighborhood, on the farm, out in the streets, to enforce these laws,” he said. “Any law enforcement officer will tell you … that’s more dangerous.”

His assessment echoed sentiments expressed this year by ICE officials, who warned that agents would be more present and active in communities with sheriffs who rebuffed the agency, potentially resulting in more arrests.

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham) said he had some constitutional concerns about HB 370. McKissick also said lawmakers should respect the autonomy sheriffs have to make public safety decisions.

The bill was amended at the start of the meeting Wednesday to address one of those concerns – a provision that would have doubled the 48-hour detainer period to 96 hours – but it still mixes state and local procedures with federal law.

Lawmakers added a provision last week that would remove some of the liability from sheriffs and law enforcement officials across the state who honor ICE detainers, instead giving judicial officials discretion. Legislators also removed a provision that would have slapped a hefty fine on sheriffs who didn’t comply.

The changes earned the support of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, which had initially opposed the legislation because they said it infringed on the constitutional right of sheriffs to make law enforcement decisions for the communities who elected them.

McFadden, Baker and Miller said they were not present during board meetings and weren’t invited to the table during discussions between the Association and lawmakers about HB 370.

Sheriff Quentin Miller traveled from Buncombe County on Wednesday to ask lawmakers not to pass House Bill 370, which would force sheriffs, including him, to work with federal immigration officials. There is currently discretion for some aspects of how law enforcement work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but GOP lawmakers believes there shouldn’t be. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons, president of the Association, confirmed before Wednesday’s meeting that the organization backed the bill, but also expressed some concern about a provision allowing for the removal of sheriffs from office. Clemmons asked lawmakers to strip that language from the bill, but they did not Wednesday.

McKissick said that provision should concern everyone.

“The intimidating provisions here that are most deeply disturbing, outside of what it does to the rights of individuals across this state, is the fact that they’re trying to intimidate sheriffs to comply with these laws with threat of removal from office,” he said. “That’s repugnant, it’s offensive and it’s something that we should all be deeply concerned about. On a multitude of levels, this bill should not become law, and if it does become law, I hope it is challenged immediately.”

McFadden told lawmakers at the committee meeting the bill would be met with lawsuits and legal issues if it passed. But he also said that, as sheriffs, they would enforce the law if it was passed, because that is their duty.

Just before senators took a voice vote Wednesday, some protesters interrupted the committee meeting.

“Something is wrong with y’all,” yelled one woman. “Y’all are inhumane!”

The measure passed and was referred to the Senate’s rules committee, which is scheduled to discuss the bill Thursday morning.

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