An illegal immigrant from Honduras returned to the U.S. sometime after being deported in 2006. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina arrested the man in June on a charge of first-degree rape and two counts of taking indecent liberties with a child. 

One day after the arrest of Oscar Pacheco-Leonardo, 33, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a detainer asking the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to hold the illegal immigrant. 

The sheriff’s office not only refused to honor the detainer, it released Pacheco-Leonardo from custody without notifying ICE, the federal agency says. 

The incident marked one of numerous times that the sheriff’s office opted to release a dangerous criminal rather than cooperate with ICE, according to the immigration agency, which released a lengthy list of examples this month. 

The case of the Honduran man was the most recent of several that prompted North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state Legislature to pass a bill requiring local sheriffs to honor ICE detainers. 

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill last week, days after ICE agents captured Pacheco-Leonardo on their own. 

State law enforcement officials opposed Cooper’s veto, as did President Donald Trump, who weighed in with a tweet. 

“North Carolina Governor Cooper Vetoed a Bill that would have required Sheriffs to cooperate with Ice [sic],” Trump tweeted. “This is a terrible decision for the great people of North Carolina. He should reverse his decision and get back to the basics of fighting crime!”

Cooper said the legislation, House Bill 370, would drain resources from local law enforcement. However, that’s not the view of most of the state’s sheriffs. 

“The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association supported as a high priority HB 370 and the NCSA regrets that it has been vetoed,” said Eddie Caldwell, the association’s executive vice president and general counsel. 

After his veto, Cooper released a written statement noting his own experience as the state’s former attorney general.          

“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina,” the governor said. “As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.”   

Cooper added:

This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties. Finally, to elevate their partisan political pandering, the legislature has made a sheriff’s violation of this new immigration duty as the only specifically named duty violation that can result in a sheriff’s removal from office.

But Caldwell, whose association represents sheriffs of North Carolina’s 100 counties, disagreed that the legislation if enacted would have drained any resources. 

“The association believes the current version of the bill represents a reasonable balance of the rights of the accused and public safety,” Caldwell said. “The percentage of jail inmates subject [to] ICE detainers is exceptionally small.”

One of the state’s leading liberal groups, the North Carolina Justice Center, lobbied Cooper to veto the bill. 

“The implementation of HB 370 would unlawfully require state judicial officials to interpret and apply federal law … [and would] strip North Carolinians of Fourth Amendment protections by failing to require an independent determination of probable cause prior to their detention by state officials,” Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center, wrote in a letter to the governor. 

“By forcing local law enforcement to engage in immigration enforcement activities and, in practice, become an extension of ICE, [the bill] would create a heightened environment of fear and distrust toward local law enforcement,” Glazier added.

Both Florida and Texas passed legislation similar to the measure Cooper vetoed in North Carolina. 

State legislatures and the U.S. Justice Department should challenge local governments’ sanctuary policies for illegal immigrants, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. 

“The governor put political correctness ahead of the safety of the residents of his state,” von Spakovsky told The Daily Signal, referring to Cooper. “Just look at the reports from the Department of Homeland Security of crimes committed by criminal aliens after they were released because sanctuary cities refuse to hold them.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, elected in November, reportedly made his first act in office ending cooperation with ICE. 

McFadden also announced that his office would not honor detainer orders. 

In August, the sheriff issued a statement responding to ICE’s criticism, but said he did not know Pacheco-Leonardo had been deported previously. The sheriff also blamed ICE.                             

“My decision that MCSO will no longer honor voluntary ICE administrative detainers is not the sole reason for Pacheco-Leonardo’s release on June 16,” McFadden said in a formal statement, adding:

Different discretionary decisions of multiple stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including judicial and law enforcement (in particular ICE’s own discretion), must also be acknowledged and addressed by those who believe that Pacheco-Leonardo should have been kept in custody and then placed directly into deportation proceedings. ICE chose to issue voluntary ICE administrative detainers on Pacheco-Leonardo, knowing that it is against [sheriff’s office] policy to honor such detainers.

Not honoring the detainers has led to numerous cases so far this year of those charged with assault, sex offenses, and other serious crimes being released back into the Charlotte area, posing a danger to residents, according to ICE.                                

In February, local police arrested an illegal immigrant from Honduras in connection with sex offenses, but the sheriff’s office released him rather than honoring the ICE detainer. ICE agents captured the suspect in March. 

Also in March, the sheriff’s office released an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was charged with breaking and entering a motor vehicle, larceny, and simple assault. The sheriff’s office again didn’t work with ICE, and now the suspect is at large. 

Police charged a Honduran man with assault and strangulation after he had been removed from the country in 2014 but reentered. ICE issued a detainer in February, but the sheriff’s office released the suspect in March. 

Also in March, police charged a Liberian in the country illegally with multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon, but the sheriff’s office released him after refusing to turn him over to ICE. 

In February, police charged a Guatemalan—who was deported in 2009 but illegally returned—with kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury. The sheriff’s office released him the following month after ICE issued a detainer. 

Police also charged an illegal immigrant from India with multiple assault charges and first-degree burglary in April, but the sheriff’s office released him after ICE issued a detainer. 

“It is as if the sheriff’s department has been deliberately shielding criminal aliens from ICE,” Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates more aggressive immigration enforcement, told The Daily Signal. 

“This is a difficult political situation for the governor because it puts him squarely on the side of the ultra-liberal wing of the Democratic Party that supports sanctuary policies,” Vaughan said of Cooper.

Cooper valued special interests and rejected the rule of law in vetoing the bill, said Eric A. Ruark, director of research for NumbersUSA, an organization that favors limits on immigration.     

“Governor Cooper should be empowering local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE, not further exposing the people of North Carolina to criminals who never should have been here to begin with,” Ruark said in a written statement provided to The Daily Signal. 

“Governor Cooper claimed when vetoing the anti-sanctuary bill that it was ‘unconstitutional,’ but that is simply false,” he said. “Court have upheld 287(g)’s constitutionality, and state and local officers routinely assist in the enforcement of federal laws in a wide variety of areas.”

The reference is to a section of federal immigration law that allows the Department of Homeland Security to deputize state and local law enforcement officers to enforce that law.