Cooperating With Trump on Immigration Takes Political Toll on Sheriffs

There may be no politics more local than a campaign for sheriff, but the charged national issue of immigration has become suddenly salient. The defeat of two prominent sheriffs in North Carolina may set a template for progressive challenges nationwide.
by | May 9, 2018
On Tuesday, Gary McFadden won the Democratic primary for sheriff in Mecklenburg County, which includes the city of Charlotte. The vote effectively means he will be the county's next sheriff: He does not have a Republican opponent in the general election. (McFadden For Sheriff campaign)

President Trump's immigration policies are having an effect in unexpected places -- namely, local elections for sheriff.

The question of local cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement was central to the outcome of three races for sheriff in North Carolina on Tuesday. Many voters objected to the program known as 287(g), under which local law enforcement agencies contract with the feds on immigration enforcement.

"In the sheriff's race, that was the main issue that got voters out to the polls," says Oliver Merino, an organizer with Comunidad Colectiva, an immigrant rights group in Charlotte. "The fact that we had two candidates committed to ending the program, while the current sheriff didn't want to hear anything about ending the program, that gave a clear choice."

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael was defeated soundly on Tuesday, taking just 20 percent of the vote. No Republican is running, so by winning the Democratic primary, former police detective Garry McFadden was in effect elected sheriff. "287(g) is going to be history in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," McFadden declared on election night.

It's a template that could be imitated elsewhere, with progressive voters in increasingly liberal metropolitan areas demanding that sheriffs refuse to cooperate with ICE or the Trump administration in general. "Sheriff Carmichael's massive defeat in Mecklenburg Cty NC sends a strong message to local law enforcement nationwide," tweeted Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic consultant and pollster. "Cooperate with Trump's deportation squad and voters will punish you."

The American Civil Liberties Union spent $175,000 on the Mecklenburg race, marking the first time the group had run a voter education campaign in a sheriff's election. It won't be the last.

"It could be that the ACLU, or the Democrat Party, has decided that this is something that works in certain scenarios," says Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative research group. "It sounds like the Democrats want to use the 287(g) issue in the way Republicans have used the sanctuary cities issue."

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews was also decisively beaten on Tuesday, taking just 31 percent of the vote against Clarence Birkhead, a former police chief for Duke University and Hillsborough. "I thank my immigrant community, my Latino community," Birkhead, the de facto new sheriff, told supporters on Tuesday. "We have to do everything we can possibly do to keep our families together [and] not cooperate with ICE."

In Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, outgoing Sheriff Van Duncan had endorsed Captain Randy Smart to succeed him. But Smart lost to Quentin Miller, a sheriff with the Asheville Police Department, who pledged not to enter into a 287(g) agreement. Miller will face Republican Shad Higgins in November.

Cooperation with ICE wasn't kryptonite for every sheriff in the state. In 2012, the Obama Justice Department ended its 287(g) arrangement with Alamance County, finding high rates of racial profiling. But Sheriff Terry Johnson, who is working with the Trump administration to restore the agreement, is running unopposed for reelection.

Vaughan says immigration proponents often exaggerate the effects of the 287(g) program. "Regardless of how you feel about what the level of legal immigration should be, the 287(g) program is a pretty small corner of the entire immigration issue," she says. "It's one that's focused on identifying and facilitating the deportation of the immigrant population that has committed crimes, and most voters across party lines want to see immigration laws enforced against criminals."

But 287(g) is becoming a proxy in the larger fight over immigration issues. In more liberal precincts, it has resonance with voters who opposed Trump's stepped-up deportation efforts. "Buncombe County and more specifically the city of Asheville have been moving farther left recently," says Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University. "Even mainstream Democrats have been forced out."

In a radio ad, the ACLU of North Carolina made the connection between Trump and Sheriff Carmichael explicit. "Sheriff Carmichael works with Trump's deportation force, detaining people for deportation, tearing families apart," the ad said. "The Trump-Carmichael immigration agenda wastes our law enforcement resources," it continued, while noting about the sheriff's opponents, "they pledge to stop working with Trump's deportation forces."

"We think the results on Tuesday show that when voters are presented with information about civil liberties issues, they will respond," says Mike Meno, spokesman for the ACLU of North Carolina.

The complaints about 287(g) distort the case, contends Ron Woodard, who directs NC Listen, a group that combats illegal immigration. The program doesn't affect people unless and until they are arrested, he says.

He's also dubious that the outcomes in three counties are representative of the mood of the state as a whole. "Certainly, in the more liberal counties, the case has been made that it's racial profiling," Woodard says. "That's misleading, but that's the way it's been presented by liberal groups who want no enforcement of our immigration laws."

Immigration was not the sole focus in any race. Carmichael's opponents derided him for putting juveniles into solitary confinement, while requiring loved ones to visit inmates by video, rather than in person.

But immigration also conjoined with other racial issues. In Buncombe County, Miller promised to provide de-escalation training, following a locally notorious incident in which a black man who was stopped for jaywalking was beaten and strangled by a deputy.

Durham County Sheriff Andrews had sought felony charges against protesters who toppled a Confederate monument last August, costing him support among some black Democratic clubs, although charges were later dropped. On Election Day, Andrews apologized after a campaign worker wrote "amen" to a comment posted on his campaign's Facebook page that warned that black voters, "immigrants and minorities will flock to the polls," leading to an ethnic takeover of the county.

"Immigration was certainly important for all three elections, but there were also discussions about racial bias in policing and equality in each of those communities," says Mirya Holman, an expert on local politics and sheriffs at Tulane University.

The fact that McFadden, Miller and Birkhead are all black men who defeated white candidates is significant, she says. The ranks of sheriffs are dominated by white men, who hold roughly 95 percent of the posts nationwide.

It also mattered that each of the challengers has already had a long career in law enforcement. Sheriffs generally have extraordinarily high reelection rates, in part because there's no one with the right background willing to take them on. "I'm really hopeful that the focus on these questions is going to mean a whole new group of people with law enforcement experience are going to run for sheriff," Holman says.

Issues surrounding race and immigration clearly helped motivate local activist groups to get involved -- something that is often not the case when it comes to elections for sheriff. Given the extremely low turnout often involved in these races, local groups that can motivate even a small percentage of voters to cast a ballot can have an outsized impact. "It all started with local  people questioning the sheriff," says Merino, the Comunidad Colectiva organizer. "National attention brought more resources."

There may be no politics more local than a campaign for sheriff, but the charged national issue of immigration is suddenly salient to races that typically have been decided mostly on the basis of which candidate can claim to be toughest on crime.

 "Sheriffs' cooperation with ICE is a national debate," Holman says. "This is something that every sheriff needs to make a decision about."