Immigrant rights groups are opposing a bill Senate Republicans filed Monday that would require local jail administrators to detain people if a federal agency requests it.
The senators also filed a bill that would punish local governments that cut their law enforcement budgets by more than 1% a year.
Senate Bill 101, is a rewrite of legislation that Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed in 2019. That bill passed after a wave of counties elected sheriffs who campaigned on ending voluntary cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
ICE “detainers” are requests federal immigration officials send to local law enforcement agencies asking them to hold individuals beyond the time they would ordinarily be released. However, local police and sheriffs retain discretion not to oblige them. Under the 2019 legislation, House Bill 370, sheriffs who did not identify people’s immigration status and comply with ICE detainers would have been removed from office.
Under the new version, jail administrators would still have to determine detainees’ immigration status and comply with ICE requests to hold people for 48 hours. The penalty for failing to do so would be a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Sen. Norm Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, said at a news conference said he liked the 2019 bill, but the new version has been “fine-tuned” to apply only to people charged with felonies or driving while impaired.
Immigrants’ rights groups denounced the bill for its potential to put lives at risk in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Detainees held in an ICE detention center in Georgia are dying of COVID-19, Georgia newspapers have reported. The NC Department of Health and Human Services counts 84 COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities; 12,241 COVID-19 cases 84 deaths are linked to the facilities.
“Under this law, more North Carolinians will be held in unsafe conditions at a time when jails and detention centers are a hub for COVID-19 outbreaks,” Stefania Arteaga, acting regional immigrants’ rights strategist for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.
“The spread of the virus will only increase with more people in crowded jails and detention centers, potentially affecting staff, their families, and by extension, all of North Carolina. This legislation would not make our communities safer. It would put them in danger.”
The GOP push to further toughen immigration enforcement runs counter to the approach unveiled by the Biden administration earlier this month, which proposes to reform federal law by “keeping families together, addressing the root causes of irregular migration, and streamlining the legal immigration system.”
Blocking law enforcement funding cuts
Senate Bill 100 appears to conflict with a growing national trend in several communities to change criminal justice practices to better respond to local needs. The measure would penalize local governments if they cut their law enforcement budgets. Communities that reduce spending on law enforcement officers’ salaries, operating expenses, or both, by more than 1% in a year would have state aid reduced by the same amount.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican, said the bill is a response to calls to “defund the police.”
“Defund the police” became a national rallying cry at last year’s protests of police killings of unarmed Black people in Minneapolis, Louisville, and other cities.
Ideas for defunding the police range have from reallocating some funds to social services and education to dissolving police agencies.
The bill seeks to ensure funding for law enforcement agencies, said Sen. Danny Britt, a Lumberton Republican.
“What we’re seeking to do here is to ensure that cities and counties who are receiving funds from the state continue to adequately fund their law enforcement so their law enforcement can do what they need to do to keep their citizens safe. So that our sheriffs have the tools they need to keep their citizens safe and to keep themselves safe while they’re doing it,” Britt said at the news conference.
The NC Police Benevolent Association said in a statement that it supports the bill.
“This legislation is a necessary step to prevent elected officials from making harmful decisions that fail to support officers and their agencies,” association president Randy Byrd said in a statement.
A set of recommendations from a state Task Force for Racial Equity and Criminal Justice established by Gov. Roy Cooper last June proposes “reimagining public safety” by having communities look for ways other than 9-1-1 calls to respond to homeless people or individuals with mental health crises.
Kerwin Pittman, a task force member and the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Recidivism Reduction Educational Program Services, said the Senate bill seeks would interfere with local government decisions and is contrary to popular concepts for bringing reform to the criminal justice system. “To strip away the sovereignty of different municipalities and counties across the state of North Carolina from reimagining public safety as they see fit is completely ludicrous,” he said in an interview.
The bill is more about protecting law enforcement jobs than doing what’s best for communities, he said.
“Not only will this bill begin to unravel the very fabric of democracy in North Carolina, but also punish different municipalities and counties for listening to the very people that elected them to their positions of power to speak for the people,” Pittman said.