Fact Check: Do Sen. Tillis' Democratic Opponents Support Sanctuary Policies?

Jan 29, 2020

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has put immigration at the center of his reelection campaign. To set himself apart from his Democratic opponents Cal Cunningham and state Sen. Erica Smith, he’s highlighting their stances on state policies.

The Tillis campaign sent out a newsletter this month, headlined, “Sanctuary policies result in gruesome violence, do Cunningham and Smith still support them?” It said Cunningham and Smith do.

Joining us to assess whether that’s indeed the case is WRAL’s Paul Specht.

Lisa Worf: So first, what are sanctuary policies?

Paul Specht: So, sanctuary policies are any policy that protects immigrants who might be undocumented from federal immigration authorities. And it's important to distinguish between sanctuary cities and sanctuary policies. Sanctuary cities have sanctuary policies, but they are banned in North Carolina.

Sanctuary cities are those where the city council or the town government has banned its police from working with ICE. Sanctuary policies can be separate policies where the town government hasn't banned anyone but are designed in a way to protect local immigrants.

And in North Carolina, there is a loophole where sheriffs can decide whether or not they want to comply with ICE. And most do comply with ICE. But there's a handful of sheriffs who don't.

Worf: Including Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department.

Specht: That's right. Most of North Carolina's largest counties have elected sheriffs that don't comply with ICE.

Worf: So this came up in a recent bill that the General Assembly passed but the governor vetoed, that would take away this flexibility from sheriff's departments. And specifically, it would require sheriffs to hold inmates for up to 48 hours beyond the terms of their sentence, at the request of immigration officials.

Specht: That's right. When we asked the Tillis campaign what they were referring to, what is their proof that Smith and Cunningham support sanctuary policies? They pointed to that bill, HB370, that would have required all sheriffs to cooperate with ICE. Smith and Cunningham have opposed it. And they gave different reasons, but both of them want sheriffs to be able to have the flexibility to decide for themselves.

And so those Democrats have sort of staked out a middle ground where they're not endorsing anything the sheriffs are doing so much as just saying, "I believe they have the right to decide for themselves."

Worf: And what was their reasoning?

Specht: Well, Cal hasn't given too much reasoning. He thinks beyond just thinking that the sheriffs have the right to make this decision on their own. He says if voters don't agree with the sheriff, then they can vote them out next time.

Cal Cunningham: I trust the voters in Mecklenburg County to weigh in on exactly that. Here's what I know. I know that law enforcement make difficult decisions every day. And as a United States senator, it's not my job to second-guess them. It's my job to make sure they have the resources that they need to keep their communities safe.

Specht: Of course, that's from your own reporting at WFAE, some of your interviews with Mr. Cunningham.

Worf: And, so, for Erica Smith?

Specht: Erica Smith isn't as opposed to HB370 as one might think. Right now, when ICE issues a detainer request and the local sheriff's office continues to jail the person in question, you know, that takes resources. It takes resources and labor costs to just keep them in the jail and watch over them. And that's a cost right now that sheriffs just take on themselves.

She said she would be open to the idea if the federal government, if ICE, would reimburse local sheriff's departments for housing these people in question.

Erica Smith: I'm fine with detaining them if the federal government is going to foot the bill and do they're job. Certainly, we do not want the release of people who are a threat to public safety. But if ICE and Department of Homeland Security wants us to hold their detentions, then doggone it, they should pay for it. They're getting taxpayer dollars to do just that.

Specht: So I thought that was interesting that her stance on this isn't hard and fast. It's a little more nuanced.

Worf: So how did you rate Tillis' statement?

Specht: We rated it half true. And these decisions are all made by not only myself but three other editors. That Smith and Cunningham haven't outright endorsed sanctuary policies, but they support the idea of enabling them, of allowing people to enact them. And so we felt that was halfway there, which is why we gave them a half true.