Sworn oaths, social justice, the rule of law — the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners dove into weighty philosophical discussions at its July 16 regular meeting. But the theoretical discourse was grounded in a practical reality: the N.C. General Assembly’s HB 370, a pending bill that would require Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller and other sheriffs throughout the state to comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests on penalty of removal from office.
The board’s four Democratic members — Chair Brownie Newman, Vice Chair Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Commissioners Amanda Edwards and Al Whitesides — had signed letters to Gov. Roy Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger urging them to oppose HB 370. Presenting at the meeting, Beach-Ferrara said the bill “was unconstitutional, that it targets immigrant communities here in Buncombe County and across North Carolina, and that it also undermines the authority of duly elected sheriffs to do their jobs and set policies that protect and maintain the public safety of the communities they’re elected to serve.”
Republican Commissioner Robert Pressley, reading from a prepared statement, said his Democratic colleagues “may even have some valid points” in their criticism of the bill. However, he said that his oath as an elected official bound him and his fellow commissioners to uphold the laws of the United States and North Carolina, regardless of their personal opinions.
“As citizens, we don’t get to choose which law we will follow and which law we will break,” Pressley said. “While I appreciate my colleagues’ social justice activism as a way to change things, I don’t believe we should allow that activism to get in the way of promises we made to the citizens who sent us here.”
Whitesides responded that HB 370 hadn’t yet been signed into law and that, as Americans, the commissioners had a right to express their opinions. He added that the commissioners’ fiduciary responsibility to act in the interest of the county should impel them to speak up against proposals they view as unjust.
“Where is our moral compass, folks? We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t give a darn anymore about people,” Whitesides said. He later compared ICE detention of immigrants without due process to the racist laws of the Jim Crow era.
While Republican Commissioner Joe Belcher said he supported the county’s Hispanic community, he objected to board members issuing statements against HB 370 on county letterhead, which bears the names of all seven commissioners. He said the board had long avoided issuing official resolutions on state and federal issues, respecting the “Dillon’s Rule” principle that gives the General Assembly preeminence over local governments.
Newman noted that the board did not have a formal policy against such statements and had previously taken positions on local bills, which impact Buncombe County alone. Because Miller is one of only seven sheriffs in the state to adopt a policy of noncompliance with ICE, he said, “it’s almost kind of a little bit of a gray area.”