What N.C. Republicans get wrong about sanctuary cities

The Observer editorial board

The FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaborated in the arrest of gang members in May.
The FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaborated in the arrest of gang members in May. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

If you believe – as many conservatives do – that the power of government should be concentrated whenever possible at the state and local level, then you should raise an eyebrow yet again at a bill passed last week by N.C. Republicans.

House Bill 318 would forbid local governments from ordering their police forces to de-emphasize or stop the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Such “sanctuary city” provisions are in place formally and informally in dozens of cities and counties across the country, including Charlotte.

It’s not news that Republican lawmakers in North Carolina want to tell cities how to do their business. But the bill, which Gov. Pat McCrory is likely to sign into law this month, also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of immigration law and how it’s enforced.

Sanctuary cities have become a flashpoint in the immigration debate in recent months, thanks in part to some misinformed rhetoric that the governor parroted last week. Said McCrory: “As governor, I believe that every law enforcement officer is sworn to uphold not only the laws of North Carolina, but also the laws of the United States ... including our immigration laws.”

But police in sanctuary cities aren’t ignoring the law, and they’re not hiding undocumented immigrants from the clutches of federal agents. What those cities have chosen to do is not use their resources – meaning officers and jails – to serve the purposes of federal programs. That means officers are not asking people their immigration status at traffic stops – and therefore not being obligated to bring undocumented workers in. It also means when undocumented immigrants are arrested for unrelated crimes, many of these cities have chosen not to keep them jailed solely to wait for federal agents to arrive.

It’s a decision cities make for philosophical and budgetary reasons. Either way, it’s legal. The Constitution says that while federal law usually supersedes state law, states are not required to enforce laws that are exclusively federal in nature (such as immigration). In Printz. v. United States, which involved background checks of gun purchases, the Supreme Court said that “the Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers ... to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.”

The author of that opinion? Conservative icon Antonin Scalia.

The governor left all of that out of his legal analysis, but he did manage to include a common scare tactic on sanctuary cities. “I don’t believe anyone should give sanctuary in any part of our state or country and nation to people who break our laws, especially drug traffickers, human traffickers and violent criminals,” he said.

Those types of offenders, however, aren’t getting sanctuary in Charlotte or other N.C. cities. They’re getting arrested and held in jails, because local law enforcement doesn’t want them back in our communities, regardless of their immigration status. The governor knows that – or at least he should.

Instead, he’s supporting a bill that will make immigrants reluctant to report crimes for fear of being arrested themselves. It also could damage the relationship cities and their police have with immigrant communities. But as we learned long ago, the governor and Republican lawmakers believe that local governments know what’s best only when Raleigh agrees.