According to Andrew Murray, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were pounding the pavement throughout Buncombe County on the “yucky” afternoon of Oct. 30 in search of Marvin Torres. Just the day prior, he said, ICE had known exactly where to find the undocumented alien: the Buncombe County Detention Center, where Torres was being released after over two years in jail awaiting trial for a felony charge of indecent liberties with a minor. Torres was convicted and sentenced to time served by Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg on Oct. 28.
But because Democratic Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller had refused to honor an ICE detainer request for Torres, Murray continued, the sex offender reentered the community before federal authorities could take him into custody. During a press conference at the federal courthouse in Asheville, Murray chastised the sheriff for what he called a “dangerous policy” of noncompliance with immigration officials.
“As law enforcement, our mission is to protect the public and to seek to provide justice to victims of crime. Sheriff Miller’s current policy serves neither [purpose],” Murray said. “It also breeds mistrust among law enforcement agencies and puts in danger the very communities it purports to protect.”
Miller announced in February that he would no longer honor ICE detainers without a valid criminal warrant. Detainers — administrative requests that are issued under federal regulations and are not associated with criminal charges — ask local law enforcement agencies to hold inmates suspected of being in the country illegally for up to two days after they would normally be released. In July, Democratic Buncombe County Commissioners Brownie Newman, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Al Whitesides and Amanda Edwards signed letters supporting Miller’s stance.
“If ICE is aware of an individual that they have determined to be a danger to the public safety of Buncombe County, then ICE should obtain a warrant for their arrest,” Miller stated in a press release about the Torres case. “Once that warrant has been secured, my deputies will work to apprehend that individual.”
Murray claimed, however, that legal circumstances had prevented ICE from obtaining a warrant. First-time illegal entry into the U.S. is treated as a civil offense, he explained, and Torres had no other outstanding criminal charges. “That is the mechanism that ICE has, the detainer, in order to for 48 hours put him on hold and verify he is the person they think he is,” the attorney said.
When asked why Torres should be subject to detention outside of judicial due process, Murray responded, “He’s an illegal alien. That puts him in a different status.” The Citizen Times reports that Torres was taken into federal custody later in the afternoon of Oct. 30.
The case has attracted national attention, with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis issuing his own statement that charged Miller and other North Carolina sheriffs with “dereliction of their duty” for denying ICE detainers. Earlier in the day, Tillis and other Republican lawmakers had introduced the Immigration Detainer Enforcement Act, which they said “will help stop sanctuary cities” by cutting some federal funds for jurisdictions that do not comply with ICE requests.
In August, Republican members of the N.C. General Assembly passed HB 370, which would have required sheriffs to cooperate with ICE detainers on penalty of removal from office. However, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper immediately vetoed the bill, saying the legislation was “simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina.” Lawmakers have yet to override the governor’s veto.