The First Amendment to the Constitution serves as something of a gauge for our national priorities. Embedded in there is the right of the people “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
But what if the government itself is aggrieved? No government agency feels more under siege lately than U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and in North Carolina, it’s helping the government do something about that.
Over the course of four days in February, federal immigration officials arrested more than 220 undocumented people in North Carolina. They were retaliating against five newly elected sheriffs who had announced they would cut certain ties with ICE.
Republicans in the state legislature passed a bill Wednesday that would force sheriffs to cooperate with the agency. And ICE helped them to craft it. The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association announced that it opposed the bill hours before it passed.
“The GOP leaders are being very candid, very straight up in saying that they are introducing this bill because they have been in communication with ICE,” Stefania Arteaga told The Intercept.
Arteaga is the statewide immigrant rights organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. She also co-founded Comunidad Colectiva, a grassroots immigrant rights group working in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte. Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden ran and won last year on ending the county’s participation in the controversial 287(g) program, which allowed voluntary participation between local law enforcement and ICE.
Now, federal immigration authorities are fighting back. “This is what ICE wants,” Arteaga said.
The bill’s top sponsor, Republican state Rep. Destin Hall, told attendees at a committee hearing Monday that “it’s no secret that we’ve actually worked with federal law enforcement officers in crafting this bill.” Hall’s spokesperson David Cobb told The Intercept that his office had worked with ICE on the bill via phone and “mobile communication.” Asked whether ICE or Hall’s office initiated communication on the bill, Cobb said he wasn’t sure.
Hall also told local news in March that he worked with ICE on the bill. He said he learned more about the conflict between sheriffs and ICE by “working with ICE on this bill, getting some direction from them, hearing from them about the problems that they’re facing.”
An ICE spokesperson said the agency isn’t lobbying for the bill, just provided information to lawmakers. “The premise that we are working with local officials ‘to pass a bill’ is not accurate,” spokesperson Bryan Cox told The Intercept in an email. “The same information provided to state officials in North Carolina we’ve also provided to journalists and other groups,” he continued. “That said, while we do not advocate for or against any specific legislation, this agency has repeatedly spoken in general as to the public safety consequences of non-cooperation with ICE,” Cox said. “Any local jurisdiction thinking that refusing to cooperate with ICE will result in a decrease in local immigration enforcement is mistaken. Local jurisdictions that choose to not cooperate with ICE are likely to see an increase in ICE enforcement activity, as in jurisdictions that do not cooperate with ICE the agency has no choice but to conduct more at-large arrest operations.”
Cox said field office leadership did not have an in-person meeting on this particular topic, but that “in general we routinely meet with legislators and their staffs just as we do with activist groups, journalists, community organizations, etc.”
That kind of liaising with lawmakers is concerning for Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “It’s pretty unusual for ICE agents to educate legislative actors on bills and writing them,” she said. “I think there is a difference between responding to press,” Mao explained, “and going to Destin Hall and helping him understand and draft a bill.”
North Carolina sheriffs’ offices for years had been working hand in hand with ICE in its efforts to intimidate and arrest undocumented people. Under the 287(g) program in Mecklenburg county, local law enforcement have transferred more than 15,000 thousand people to ICE over the past 13 years in Charlotte alone. ICE’s field director for the region said the mass arrests in February were “the direct conclusion of dangerous policies of not cooperating” with the agency.
But last year, voters in the state’s seven largest counties elected new Democratic sheriffs, all of whom are black and five of whom announced they won’t cooperate with certain ICE programs and ran on progressive reforms to policing last year. Five are the first black sheriffs to be elected in their respective county’s history. Those wins were the result of intense organizing around the 287(g) program and a growing sense of shared concerns between communities of immigrants and people of color regarding interactions with law enforcement, advocates say.
After President Donald Trump was elected, Mao told The Intercept, “a lot of these counties experienced tremendous increases in law enforcement interaction with ICE to transfer people.”
“A lot of community members were quite concerned that this whole process was disappearing a significant amount of community,” Mao said. In Charlotte, those concerns intersected with a larger movement around police accountability and overpolicing in communities of color, she explained. That’s how McFadden came into the picture, Mao said; he was “committed to figuring out progressive criminal justice policies in the jail, with the end of their ICE collaboration program being one component of it.”
Sheriffs Bobby Kimbrough, Gerald Baker, Clarence Birkhead, Quentin Miller, and McFadden announced they would change the way their offices cooperated with ICE, including ending cooperation with 287(g) or no longer honoring “detainer” requests, which keep people in prison for up to 48 hours beyond their release date so that ICE can pick them up.
“This is really a bill that is retaliatory in nature, that is there to uphold the needs of the Trump deportation pipeline,” Arteaga said. “This is not only ICE working with state representatives to undermine the will of voters to propose legislation that is blatantly there to create racial profiling,” but also to “literally undermine black sheriffs.”
The bill, HB 370, Hall said, would ask sheriffs housing “illegal immigrants who’ve been charged with a crime in our state” to “simply notify ICE, let them know that they have someone there who they suspect is probably an illegal immigrant, and let ICE do their job.”
Unlike similar measures in Texas and Arizona, HB 370 forces sheriff’s deputies to ask people about their immigration status regardless of the type of criminal charge they face. And it mandates officers to report and hand people over to ICE, and to comply with any ICE request accompanied by a detainer.
North Carolina’s state legislature has a knack for garnering national attention for extremely conservative measures. Perhaps the most notable was the controversial 2016 “bathroom bill” that would have forced transgender people to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificate. The state has faced intense backlash over discriminatory voter ID laws too. A federal court in 2016 struck down a law that judges said “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.” In that case, legislators admitted in court filings that they wanted to partially stop Sunday voting in order to suppress the black vote.
The state’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper repealed parts of the notorious bathroom bill, and advocates hope that he’ll veto HB 370. “He’s conservative for a Democrat,” Arteaga said about Cooper. “This would really be Gov. Cooper’s first opportunity to veto a bill that will really harm communities of color,” she said. It remains to be seen if the legislature has enough votes to sustain a veto, she explained, “for the first time in a very long time.”
After the new sheriffs were elected, ICE’s retaliation was swift, Mao said. In Asheville in February, ICE agents — wearing identifying uniforms, but driving a vehicle resembling that of an employment contractor, with ladders on top — went into a Hendersonville community and arrested four people.
Earlier this year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department held a forum at a church community center in Charlotte and invited immigrants and undocumented people to talk to police chiefs and McFadden, the sheriff. ICE agents showed up there too.
“ICE was there as this intimidating force,” Mao said. “And we had to file a civil rights complaint, because ICE is not supposed to come into churches,” she explained. “So just taking really abusive, rogue actions, even for an ICE office that’s traditionally known to be aggressive and have high arrest rates.”
Freedom Caucus Chair and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, said he supported the state legislature’s efforts to increase cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement. But he thinks those efforts should focus on people with a criminal record, he told The Intercept. The bill would only impact those charged with a crime, including things like traffic violations or driving without a license. Under state law, undocumented people cannot legally obtain a license. “In the 11th District, there is some criminal component” to the cooperation with ICE, “it is not a dragnet just to get people that are here illegally without a criminal record,” Meadows said. Only a quarter of the people arrested in the February raids had criminal records.
“I think the legislature is looking at making sure that detainer language is honored, which is very different than 287(g),” Meadows said. “I would support them in their efforts to make sure that our chief constitutional law enforcement officers in every county helps enforce the laws. And yet we don’t want them to become ICE agents,” he said. “Working with local sheriffs in my area, I know there was one of the sheriffs that decided not to be involved in the 287(g) program, but they do plan to honor the detainer language. And I think that that’s a good middle ground place to be.”
Meadows said he had a problem with cases in which sheriffs say they won’t honor ICE detainers. “That’s creating sanctuary counties, and I think that that’s the wrong way to go,” he said. Meadows said he doesn’t see a problem with the continued blurring of lines between federal and state law enforcement when it comes to cooperating with ICE. “It’s more of a political problem than it is an enforcement problem. So I think some of the sheriffs are getting political blowback from their communities, and I understand that,” he said. “At the same time, if we’ve got criminals that have been apprehended and they are scheduled to be deported or should be deported, I think that working hand in glove with both federal and local law enforcement agencies is the proper course.”
Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat representing North Carolina’s 12th District, isn’t surprised by the legislature’s efforts. “They do a lot of crazy stuff there. I served there, I can tell you,” Adams told The Intercept. “When they talk about local control, which the general assembly talks about all the time, I think they need to be a little more supportive of the sheriffs,” she said. “I certainly am supportive of what they’re doing. We are just targeting people of color who we think may be immigrants. And I don’t think that’s right,” she said. Adams said she hadn’t seen the bill but would take a look at it.
“I think it’s a good, common-sense issue, and I’m glad the legislature is moving forward on that,” Congressperson David Rouzer, a Republican from North Carolina’s 7th District, told The Intercept. “I think the vast majority of the citizens of North Carolina would agree with it,” he said. Asked about the fact that voters elected the new sheriffs in large part because of their stances on changing how law enforcement works with ICE, Rouzer said he still thought voters were unified on the issue. “I think if you were to poll the citizens of North Carolina, probably 65, 70 percent would be in favor of the sheriffs coordinating with ICE. The legislature is a reflection of the state as a whole. And I think the citizens at large would support what they’re doing.”
There’s confusion around the role local law enforcement should be playing when it comes to helping ICE. “I think that disconnect is being led purposely by the GOP,” Arteaga said, “to accomplish their goal of swaying misinformed voters.”
But it’s clear that a large coalition of groups — not just immigrant rights organizers — see a problem with increasing cooperation between state and federal law enforcement.
Support for Comunidad Colectiva’s organizing against 287(g) “expanded very much outside of POC groups,” Arteaga said. Fifty-eight organizations, including local and national groups, signed onto letter asking former Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael to end cooperation with ICE. “There’s a large segment of communities that see issues of immigration as part of their issue as well,” Arteaga said, “whether it’s education, LGBTQ rights, or women’s issues.”