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ICE Police
North Carolina Republicans are pushing a law that would mandate local sheriffs to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests. Gregory Bull/AP

North Carolina Republicans Are Getting In on Immigration Politics

Absent federal action, North Carolina Republicans are joining states like Florida and Texas in pushing their agenda on the border.

Republicans in North Carolina are close to enacting a statewide law on the border crisis, forcing Democrats to swallow hard-line immigration policy that’s been stalled in Congress.

The law would mandate that local sheriffs check the immigration status of anyone arrested for felony drug or violent crime. They would also have to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold those whose citizenship is in question for up to 48 hours without a warrant, giving agents enough time to pick them up.

Republicans in the state say they are pushing this measure in the absence of federal action on the southern border, joining states like Florida and Texas in taking immigration policy into their own hands.

“We have rules, regulations and laws in this country that frankly are not being enforced,” state House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell said on the “Do Politics Better Podcast.” “It’s hard to be a country at all when you don’t have borders, and I really wish our federal government would do something about this.”

The White House helped negotiate a bipartisan bill in the Senate on the border crisis earlier this year, coming up with the most conservative piece of immigration policy legislation Democrats have signed on to in years. The bill would both tighten the standards for those seeking asylum and allow the Department of Homeland Security to automatically close the border if too many migrants show up with asylum claims. House Speaker Mike Johnson and former President Donald Trump still panned the compromise.

With the matter unsolved at the national level, Republicans in several states are highlighting the issue locally to heighten the blame on Biden’s administration. Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a bill to block employers from hiring or recruiting undocumented workers and began shipping undocumented migrants to other states. One Texas state law that allows officials to arrest and hold people they suspect have entered the U.S. illegally is currently on hold as judges consider its constitutionality. GOP politicians in states far away from the Mexican border, including Michigan and Wisconsin, told NOTUS immigration would be a top issue in their campaigns.

North Carolina Republicans are joining in.

“I was very disappointed to see this bill be issued again,” North Carolina Democratic state Rep. Allen Buansi told NOTUS. “It hurts North Carolina on so many fronts and sends a message to immigrants, documented or undocumented, that they should essentially be on notice that they are not welcome.”

While most law enforcement agencies honor ICE’s requests, sheriffs in at least 11 North Carolina counties have expressed concern or decided not to comply with the federal agency’s edicts. North Carolina’s state House passed the immigration bill, and it is expected to be one of the first bills the Senate takes up in its short session starting Wednesday. Republicans have a veto-proof majority in North Carolina.

The state’s Republicans attempted to pass a similar bill in 2019 and 2022. But in both scenarios, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the effort. After one Democratic representative switched parties last year, Republicans gained the numbers they needed to override the governor’s veto.

“Unfortunately, this is the year that Republicans will be successful in passing this,” said Kathie Kline, chair of the Buncombe County Democratic Party. “The supermajority has given them the freedom to grab and take whatever they want at the expense of an equitable system that North Carolinians want.”

Democrats argue the bill is just a campaign tactic being employed by Republicans.

“The Trump campaign has yet to put offices here in North Carolina. There is no movement from Republicans in regards to the 2024 election,” Democratic strategist Doug Wilson said. “All of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Let’s bring this immigration bill up.’ Why? To get their base out.”

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They say Republicans also have themselves to blame for the lack of a national bill to address the border.

“Instead of passing quality, bipartisan immigration reform in Congress, a contingent of folks who are supposed to be governing our country decided to block that legislation to score political points,” said Kevyn Creech, chair of Wake County Democratic Party.

A February Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll found that across the 2024 swing states, including North Carolina, immigration was the second biggest issue according to voters — with around 57% identifying it as a “very important issue.”

At least one Republican operative admits the party sees an opportunity to prioritize beneficial legislation during the “traditionally political” short sessions, especially on an issue relevant to voters.

“When the Senate has a political issue that they feel like they need to pass in short session to give ammunition for their caucus members’ campaigns, it’s likely they’re going to do what they need to get it done. Of course, they won’t touch abortion or anything that would hurt them in the election with a ten-foot pole. They learned the hard way with HB2,” the Republican operative said, referencing the state’s fraught 2016 “bathroom bill.”

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.