Politics & Government

Tillis to NC counties: Comply with ICE detainers or face lawsuits from victims

Updated July 10, 2019, with developments.

North Carolina’s fight over sheriffs’ cooperation with federal immigration officials has gone national.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would compel local law enforcement officials to comply with detainer requests made by federal authorities or face possible civil action by victims and/or the loss of federal grants.

Tillis’s bill — the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act — comes as Republican state lawmakers are trying to pass a bill of their own to compel cooperation between county sheriffs and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. House Bill 370 would require local law enforcement to hold prisoners subject to ICE detainers.

Sen. Thom Tillis
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Alex Brandon AP

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has called the bill unconstitutional, suggesting he would veto it. The bill has passed the House and the Senate, but in slightly different versions.

Several black sheriffs, particularly in large metro counties across the state, swept into office last November promising to limit their collaboration with ICE. In Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, new sheriffs pulled out of the 287(g) program, a voluntary partnership that has some of their deputies effectively work as ICE officers.

Together with sheriffs in three other counties, they also stopped honoring immigration detainers to hold inmates for up to 48 hours after they have completed their sentences or posted bond, so that federal agents can come pick them up.

“If you, as a local elected official, believe that your policies are consistent with your electorate and you want to do these policies, we’ll defer to the local government. But if you get it wrong, the victims are going to have rights,” Tillis told McClatchy on Tuesday afternoon.

Immigration advocates have pointed out that most courts have ruled that detainer compliance is voluntary. Several federal judges have ruled that detainers violate due process by keeping inmates in jail longer than they would be there otherwise without probable cause.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee are original co-sponsors of the legislation. Tillis, Graham and Ernst are up for re-election in 2020.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office accused lawmakers of “strong-arming” and “bullying” sheriffs.

“Any attempt to force Sheriffs nationwide to detain individuals for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not only negatively impact public safety in Mecklenburg County, NC, it will significantly erode the authority of all duly elected Sheriffs. The proposed legislation would strip the ability of states and local communities to establish their own public safety policies within their respective jurisdictions,” the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office said as part of a statement released July 10.

Standoff in Mecklenburg County

Tillis’s federal legislation comes weeks after a high-profile case in Mecklenburg County where Sheriff Garry McFadden is under fire for his policy of ignoring detainers.

Luis Pineda-Ancheta, a 37-year-old native of Honduras, was arrested twice in May on charges related to domestic violence and twice released from jail after posting bond. Following his first arrest, ICE issued a detainer that was ignored. Later in May, Pineda-Ancheta was involved in a 9-hour standoff with law enforcement officials.

He has been deported from the U.S. once and is living in the country illegally.

“When law enforcement agencies fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders onto the streets, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect public safety and carry out its mission,” Sean Gallagher, who oversees ICE’s operations in Georgia and the Carolinas, told The Charlotte Observer last month.

McFadden said he is being unfairly blamed by ICE to score political points.

“It is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that my discretionary decisions,” McFadden said at a press conference, “are the sole reasons for Pineda-Ancheta’s releases.”

Cities, counties not complying with ICE

Tillis said his bill is in response to several North Carolina counties — Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Wake — and others across the country refusing to comply with detainer requests or failing to notify ICE if an inmate is released.

Forsyth County does not honor the detainers, but it does notify ICE when someone has met the conditions for release, said Cynthia Howell, a spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. Mecklenburg County does not notify ICE when someone is being released.

The legislation would allow a lawsuit from any individual, or their spouse or child, who is the victim of a crime that occurred after a jurisdiction failed to comply with a detainer or notify the department about the release of an illegal immigrant.

Any city or county that has “a statute, ordinance, policy, or practice of non-compliance” would be eligible to be sued. As part of the bill, they would have to waive any claim to sovereign immunity in order to receive certain grants from the federal government, including Community Development Block Grants and some Economic Development Administration grants, according to a summary of the legislation released by Tillis.

“There must be consequences for governments and entities that gamble with public safety, refuse to work with federal officials, and refuse to deal with felons here illegally,” Graham said in a statement. “This legislation empowers individuals who are the victims of these entities and governments’ poor decisions.”

Tillis said he saw the issue as a victims’ rights one.

“If, in fact, what we’re hearing from people who support sanctuary policies is we deem these people not a threat to society, then it should be a non-issue to them,” Tillis said. “Unless they get it wrong. And if they get it wrong, I think that the victims should be appropriately compensated.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.