There wasn’t a lot to like about what occurred the other day in a state Senate committee. First, legislative rules – notoriously rubberized – were stretched to the point where principles of orderly law-making were nailed up for mockery. Second, the travesty took place in service of a goal both misguided and cruel.
That goal reflects hostility among the General Assembly’s conservative Republican majority toward North Carolina’s non-citizen immigrants, mainly Hispanic, who live here without legal permission. The consensus among these legislators seems to be that the state should try to make itself as unwelcoming as possible to these undocumented residents.
Maybe they’ll go somewhere else. Maybe they’ll go back home. (Some already have and perhaps more will – if they’re prepared to face again the poverty and violence they fled in the first place.)
Hence, the legislature’s move to force local governments to take a hard line toward unauthorized immigrants living in their communities. Action by a Senate judiciary committee on June 21 was the latest stroke in that effort – and one highlighting the ease with which the legislative process can be warped by those convinced that the end justifies the means.
Laws meant to keep cities and counties from adopting “sanctuary” ordinances were enacted last year with strong Republican support.
Essentially, they require local law enforcement agencies to act as arms of the federal government in ferreting out undocumented immigrants. Officers cannot be instructed to avoid gathering information about people’s citizenship, and identification cards issued by foreign consulates or private organizations (the group FaithAction issues such cards in cooperation with the Greensboro Police Department) cannot be accepted as valid.
But the laws carry no penalties for non-compliance. State Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican whose district includes Morehead City and Beaufort, must have said to himself, “Can’t have that!”
Sanderson used a form of what has become a regrettably popular legislative tactic known as “gut and amend” to try (not to put too fine a point on it) to cram his preferences down his colleagues’ throats.
The House last year passed House Bill 100, a low-profile clarification of the rules covering certain jury duty records. When it went to the Senate, the bill was assigned to the Judiciary II Committee.
Sanderson, meanwhile, in May filed Senate Bill 868 (Sen. Buck Newton, the Republican candidate for state attorney general, was the other prime sponsor) with provisions meant to ensure compliance with the anti-sanctuary cities laws.
The bill would set up a mechanism by which someone, even anonymously, could file a report of alleged non-compliance that would have to be investigated by the attorney general. A locality found to be out of line – basically by continuing to treat immigration violations as none of its business – would be hammered with the loss of state funds, including money for schools and roads. That, of course, would be an intolerable loss.
To kickstart the provisions of S.B. 868, even if not the bill itself, Sanderson on June 21 proposed a substitute version of H.B. 100 that simply pasted the former bill into the latter. The jury records language was retained, making this not quite a classic instance of gut and amend. But the bill took on an entirely different and much more consequential thrust.
According to news reports, Judiciary II Committee members greenlighted the substitute bill just minutes after it was unveiled. The bill then on June 24 was OK’d by the Appropriations Committee, over opposition from Democrats, and it will have to pass muster in the full Senate. But if it’s cleared and returned to the House, members there will not have a chance to give it the kind of full, public airing it deserves.
Instead, because they’d be considering a bill that – according to its number and to one insignificant section – they had already approved, their choice will be either to concur with the Senate changes in full or to reject them.
Rejection would mean sending the bill to a conference committee to work out a compromise. But then, whatever the committee came up with would either have to be turned down (unlikely, as leaders by then would be on board) or swallowed whole.
The Senate has a rule that on its surface should act as a brake against procedural abuses of this sort. The principle is that amendments to bills offered on the Senate floor are supposed to be “germane to the subject matter of the measure under consideration.” When amendments or substitute bills are offered in committee, germaneness is to be determined by the committee chairman.
In what universe would Sanderson’s provisions regarding sanctuary cities be regarded as germane to the original subject matter of House Bill 100? None that’s easy to imagine.
Rules requiring that changes to bills be germane are important in promoting orderly, transparent, thorough law-making. To make end runs around these rules may be expedient, and there has to be room for a certain amount of legislative gamesmanship. But there doesn’t seem to be much question that, especially with the frequent use of gut and amend, the operative rule for some General Assembly members these days is “whatever I can get away with.”
Tightening the leash
Sanderson’s maneuver became another in a series of moves by the legislature to override the judgment of local officials – the infamous H.B. 2 “bathroom bill” being this year’s most glaring example. The state constitution does give lawmakers that prerogative. But whether to exercise it hinges on their own judgment. In the case of H.B. 100, the better course would be to leave well enough alone.
City council members, county commissioners and police chiefs who favor the sanctuary city approach don’t do so because they’re scofflaws. In general, they believe that 1) immigration enforcement is a federal matter, 2) it shouldn’t be left to localities to clean up after the federal government’s inability to agree on fair, practical immigration policies, and 3) their communities are made safer when all residents, no matter their immigration status, can interact with the police without fearing that they’ll be caught up in an immigration probe.
Those are reasonable positions. And it’s worth noting that the current anti-sanctuary city law grants a small margin of leeway. It says that a consular or privately issued ID “may be used by a law enforcement officer to assist in determining the identity or residency of a person when they are the only documents providing an indication of identity or residency available to the law enforcement officer at the time.”
H.B. 100, as it goes to the Senate floor, would strike that worthwhile exception. One has to wonder how many police chiefs are rolling their eyes at the prospect of their officers losing even that modest degree of flexibility.
It’s true that the nation’s failure to resolve deeply conflicting views about immigration has led to a situation in which millions of people – most of them hard-working contributors to the economy – exist in legal limbo.
The choices, then, for policy-makers? Paths to citizenship for the otherwise law-abiding, or deportation beyond a wall like the one Donald Trump cynically vows he’ll make Mexico pay to build? In a country where immigration’s many benefits have been tallied throughout our history – and to the Council of Churches and its allies, who believe we have a duty to welcome the stranger — the answer couldn’t be more obvious.