It’s back…and, tragically, worse than ever. After fading from view back in April upon winning approval by the state House of Representatives, a Trump Administration-inspired bill to force North Carolina sheriffs to become accessories to federal immigration enforcement operations is moving quickly and could be on Gov. Cooper’s desk later this week.
As readers will recall, the original version of House Bill 370  sought to force all North Carolina sheriffs to honor “detainer requests” from federal immigration officials (ICE) for people in their custody. Detainers are not judicial orders signed by any court official, and they are not arrest warrants that require any kind of finding of probable cause. The individuals targeted by detainer requests are typically otherwise eligible for release from jail or prison.
Last fall, several new sheriffs were elected in the state’s larger, urban counties after running on platforms that pledged to no longer honor detainer requests – a discretionary decision that’s long been within the purview of individual sheriffs. In coordination with the Trump administration, however, the original bill sought to remove this discretion by threatening to impose financial penalties on sheriffs who failed to honor ICE requests.
At first, the state Sheriffs Association opposed the bill based on the premise that it infringed on the constitutional right of sheriffs to make law enforcement decisions for the communities who elected them. The new version of the bill, however, succeeded in removing this formal opposition  (at least from the Sheriffs Association – several individual sheriffs still oppose the bill) by establishing a scheme whereby judicial officials would play a role in making the decision of whether a person will be ordered to be held in custody.
The new version of the bill features a remarkably harsh penalty for sheriffs who refuse to go along with the process: removal from office by a Superior Court judge. (As an aside, it should be noted that each of the new sheriffs at the center of the controversy, and now potentially facing the prospect of removal from office for pursuing what they understand to be their constitutional duties, is a man or woman of color.)
The North Carolina NAACP convincingly describes the legislation as “an attempt to legislate racism and to undermine the will of the people of North Carolina” and as an effort to “preemptively nullify our votes by retaliating against recently elected sheriffs….”
Meanwhile, B.J. Barnes, a former Republican sheriff of Guilford County who was defeated last fall by the current sheriff, Danny Rogers, argues convincingly that the bill violates the 4th Amendment rights of immigrants and will invite costly litigation.
As troubling as the disturbing racial and constitutional concerns regarding the new version of the bill are, however, there is an even more worrisome aspect to the measure: the threat it poses to public safety and, ultimately, human life.
Simply put, when immigrant communities lose faith in local law enforcement and come to see it as an arm of ICE, they greatly reduce the rate at which they report crimes and cooperate with local officers. Bill proponents have attempted to undercut this argument by highlighting a handful of isolated incidents in which individuals released by sheriffs have committed serious crimes. The trouble with this reasoning, however, is that it elevates anecdotes over hard data.
That’s why representatives of the North Carolina Victims Assistance Network, North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence authored a joint letter this spring expressing their deep concerns about the proposal.
As the letter  pointed out:
Victims who do not have documented status are already threatened with deportation on a regular basis by abusers who are aware of their status. If HB 370 passes, abusers and traffickers would have a new weapon to strengthen these threats and hold them over victims’ heads when a victim is trying to call 911 for help. Such reports – or the threat of such reports – would be an extremely powerful weapon for abusers.”
The letter goes on to note that, as they are for many citizens, domestic violence situations can be enormously complex. While they may need protection, many victims often depend on their abusers for basic needs – including support of their children – and therefore do not want them deported.
Add to these basic public safety concerns the distraction from more serious law enforcement matters that the constant entanglement with immigration enforcement will inevitably cause –indeed, many immigrants will find themselves held without bail for minor offenses, and even driving violations – and the proposal looks that much worse.
The bottom line: As it is with the vast majority of the Trump anti-immigrant agenda, HB 370 is not about promoting public safety; it is about advancing a xenophobic political agenda rooted in fear and racism. A promised veto from Gov. Cooper  will be welcome and should be sustained.