North Carolina Wants to Fire Sheriffs Who Refuse to Comply with ICE

It’s not the first state to force local lawmakers to comply with ICE against their will.
June 20, 2019, 6:52pm
North Carolina wants to fire sheriffs who refuse to comply with ICE

North Carolina Republicans are trying to pass a bill that would require local law enforcement to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But sheriffs in the state’s biggest counties — most of whom are newly elected, and all of whom are black — are fighting back.

House Bill 370, which was introduced after sheriffs in two of the state’s biggest counties ended legal partnerships with ICE, would essentially force local officers to enforce federal immigration law. Under the new measures, sheriffs deputies would be required to check the immigration status of anyone who is charged with a crime. If the officer encounters an undocumented immigrant, or someone whose status they are “unable to determine,” they would have to let ICE know. The bill would also give the state the power to fire sheriffs who refuse to work with ICE.


North Carolina’s fight over complying with ICE reflects the ongoing tension between local governments that have expressed the desire to protect — or at the very least, not target — undocumented immigrants and Trump’s increasingly aggressive efforts to track down and arrest as many of them as possible.

It’s not the first state to force local lawmakers to comply with ICE against their will. Texas passed a law in 2017 that made it illegal for law enforcement officers to refuse to honor ICE detainers. More recently, Florida outlawed sanctuary cities, even though it doesn’t have any.

Rep. Destin Hall, one of the top sponsors of the North Carolina bill, reportedly told supporters that he and other legislators worked with ICE to craft the bill. Hall has made the issue a political talking point, labeling his opponents as “sanctuary sheriffs” and accusing them of “putting partisan politics ahead of public safety.” But the bill’s opponents, including the ACLU of North Carolina, say it would actually reduce public safety by hurting immigrant communities’ trust in law enforcement.

The impending vote is the latest in a quasi tug-of-war between politicians and law enforcement officers over how much to cooperate with federal immigration officers, whose tactics have grown more aggressive since Trump took office. Tensions picked up in December 2018 when the newly elected sheriff of Mecklenburg County ended the county's 287(g) partnership with ICE, which had been in place since 2006. Sheriff Garry McFadden claimed the program had strained relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities. Wake County ended its own 287(g) partnership in March. Three other counties stopped honoring ICE detainers.


For 23 years, federal immigration officers have trained local law enforcement to serve as deputies in the field through the 287(g) program. Many law enforcement agencies see it as a win-win: They get reimbursed for detaining and transporting people who are suspected of being in the country without authorization, and ICE effectively gets to expand its presence across the country with minimal effort. The program has seen a surge in activity under Trump, who's taken an aggressive approach to immigration.

That hasn't sat well with some of the state's sheriffs. As a result, McFadden and four other recently elected sheriffs have started to challenge the program, claiming it discourages immigrants from reporting crimes. Some even campaigned on ending the program.

The five sheriffs represent the state’s most populous counties, making their decision to stop cooperating with ICE a massive blow to the agency.

The state’s sheriffs association initially joined them in opposing the bill, arguing that each sheriff should be able to decide whether they comply with ICE. But the association has since backtracked, leaving McFadden and the four other sheriffs as the bill’s primary opponents.

After a hearing regarding the bill on Wednesday, McFadden accused the Legislature of attacking him and the state’s other recently elected black sheriffs. McFadden said conservative lawmakers had “carefully identified” which sheriffs were targets of the law “by using code words [such] as ‘urban sheriffs,’ ‘sanctuary sheriffs,’ and … ‘the super-majority minority sheriffs,’ simply meaning to me: the newly elected African-American sheriffs of the seven largest counties in North Carolina.”

The bill is set to go to a second hearing today, and legislators could vote to move it forward to the state’s General Assembly. If it passes, North Carolina won’t be the only state to have a law like this on the books: Texas passed a similar bill in 2017.

Cover: In this Oct. 22, 2018, photo U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surround and detain a person during a raid in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)