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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Amid accusations of extreme ideology and racism, North Carolina Republican lawmakers advanced a bill Wednesday that would force sheriffs to recognize federal requests to hold jail inmates who may be in the country illegally.
Nearly all of the state's 100 county sheriffs voluntarily comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers upon people charged with state crimes. Those documents aren't actual criminal arrest warrants, but if accepted, give ICE up to 48 hours to pick up suspects.
But several recently elected black Democratic county sheriffs — most from metropolitan areas — have refused to comply, saying it diverts resources and doesn't promote community safety. Some ran last year on ending voluntary cooperation with ICE.
The bill language that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee has been eased somewhat from what the full House passed in April. Instead of sheriffs having to comply with detainers unilaterally, the latest edition requires a judge or magistrate to issue an order to hold the inmate.
But it still sends the message that sheriffs must cooperate. The bill also demands that no matter how minor a suspect's alleged crime is, sheriffs must check the records of anyone jailed to see if they are sought by federal immigrant agents. Sheriffs who don't comply would be removed from office, even though they are elected by county residents.
"Nobody's threatening sheriffs," said GOP Sen. Chuck Edwards of Henderson County, who is helping shepherd the bill, but "we feel like there should be a consequence for not going one step further and asking if there is any reason to detain this person further."
Three sheriffs who don't comply held a news conference before the committee meeting and accused Republican lawmakers of unfairly targeting them. According to Sheriff Garry McFadden of Mecklenburg County, the state's largest county, legislators have been using "code words" like "urban sheriffs" and "sanctuary sheriffs" to highlight their partisan and racial makeup.
The bill represents a "clear agenda against the newly elected African American sheriffs, to erode the powers of the sheriff's office that we individually hold," McFadden said. He later told committee members that their comments about duly elected sheriffs are "disrespectful. And I can't sit back and watch that."
Other opponents say due process problems remain that make the bill unconstitutional because the suspects would be held without a warrant even after meeting other release terms. The judge or magistrate would issue the order simply if the official determines the prisoner is the same person subject to a detainer.
The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, representing all sheriffs, initially opposed the House version but reversed course last week with the Senate language.
Bill proponents have highlighted a Mecklenburg County case to support the necessity for the bill. A suspect arrested twice on local charges last month related to domestic violence was released, only to be arrested by ICE soon after. But advocates for immigrants and their allies said the measure will discourage victims of crime who are in the country unlawfully from alerting law enforcement for fear they also will end up getting arrested and deported.
"How many victims of domestic violence will never come forward if we pass this?" asked Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Mecklenburg County. "If you listen to the experts who work in this field, they will tell you hundreds."
The debate got testier before the committee's voice vote. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Destin Hall of Caldwell County blamed sheriffs' unwillingness to cooperate with ICE the result of "simply extremist left-wing ideology that says we should have open borders." A Wake County woman who through a translator told the committee she was living in the country unlawfully called the bill "racist and unconstitutional."
Two other spectators in the committee opposed to the bill were led out of the meeting room by legislative workers just before the voice vote. They had started yelling at Rep. Brenden Jones of Columbus County after the Republican said the legislation is "going to make these guys do what's right to protect the citizens of North Carolina."
The bill next goes to another Senate committee before heading to the floor. Any final legislation approved would be sent to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose office has said he had concerns with the House version. Immigrant and civil rights groups have urged Cooper to promise to veto the measure.
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