RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday vetoed legislation requiring North Carolina sheriffs to recognize requests by federal immigration agents to hold jail inmates believed to be in the country illegally, calling the bill unconstitutional and politically motivated.
The veto came a day after the GOP-controlled legislature gave the legislation final approval. It was filed in response to several recently elected Democratic sheriffs who are refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, particularly on immigration detainers.
Cooper, a former state attorney general, had signaled in June that the legislation would likely be vetoed, and Republicans had idled the measure until this week.
“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina” Cooper said in his written veto message . “As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.”
The detainers, which ask that a suspect be held up to 48 hours for pickup, aren’t arrest warrants, so currently they can be ignored. The bill’s Republican sponsors said sheriffs should work with ICE.
The dissenting sheriffs — all of them African American and most of them in the state’s largest counties — opposed the measure, saying it would worsen public safety and make immigrant victims of crime afraid of coming forward. Immigration and civil rights advocates praised the veto, having warned previously that arresting people on detainers violates due process rights and would lead to litigation.
Sheriffs “must have the ability to determine how to ensure the safety and security for all members of their community as they were elected to do,” Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller (D), whose office doesn’t honor ICE detainers, said in a release.
GOP legislative leaders can try to override the veto. That would require Republicans to gain support from several Democrats, but not a single Democrat voted for the bill sent to Cooper’s desk. The GOP holds majorities in both chambers, but they aren’t veto-proof.
Republicans led by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) blasted Cooper at a news conference held minutes after the veto was announced, saying Cooper turned his back on the public and victims of crime.
The overwhelming majority of North Carolinians “believe that law enforcement ought to work together,” said Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell), a chief bill sponsor. “They believe that our sheriffs ought to be working with federal law enforcement officials and by his veto today, Gov. Cooper has signaled that he wants to be a sanctuary governor.”
“The only sheriffs who have opposed it are the ones that are actually ignoring these ICE detainers,” Moore said. “They’re the most left of the leftists at this point.”
As they have during legislative debate, Republicans cited situations in Mecklenburg County — in and around Charlotte — where violent suspects who were subjects of detainers had been released from jail. Mecklenburg GOP Sen. Dan Bishop, who is running for Congress, said the dissenting sheriffs lacked moderation.
“Despite Governor Cooper’s attempt to distract folks with reckless rhetoric and name calling, the message this veto sends is abundantly clear: He is more concerned about protecting the ‘rights’ of people in this country illegally who are in jail for committing crimes than he is about protecting the safety of our communities and the citizens that live in them,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) in a statement. “Instead of signing this common sense bill, Governor Cooper is choosing to side with sheriffs like the Mecklenburg County Sheriff who in June ignored an ICE detainer request on a man in custody for rape and child sex offense charges and released this dangerous individual back into the community. Thankfully ICE tracked down this suspect earlier this month without further incident, but that won’t always be the case in these instances.”
The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, representing all sheriffs, backed the measure after changes were made in the Senate, one of which would let a judge or magistrate issue the order to hold a suspect who is subject to a detainer.
Cooper also said he vetoed it because of a provision directing that a sheriff be removed from office for failing to meet new immigration duties. They would include checking the records of anyone jailed for an alleged criminal offense to see if they are sought by federal immigrant agents.
Over 100 national and North Carolina groups had urged Cooper to veto the measure.
“This bill only serves to undermine the will of voters who have elected sheriffs with the goal of creating a safer, more welcoming environment,” the immigrant advocacy group El Pueblo said in a news release thanking Cooper and urging the veto be upheld. It also criticized language used in the legislative debate that “sent a message that certain people are to be feared.”
Edwards indicated that another veto override battle could be brewing on Jones Street. “Unlike Governor Cooper who prefers to pander to his far left supporters, we will protect North Carolinians and plan to override his irresponsible veto,” said Edwards.
North State Journal staff contributed to this report.