Sheriff's immigration task force could fold next year

By ALLISON STICE The Island Packet
Published Saturday, November 17, 2012

A task force of Beaufort County sheriff's deputies trained to act as federal immigration agents will remain intact until January.What happens after that is anyone's guess, said Sheriff P.J. Tanner.

The Sheriff's Office Immigrations and Customs Enforcement task force is among many around the country whose partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security are under review. Scheduled cuts to the 2013 federal budget include a $17 million reduction for the task force program called "287(g)," which allows local agencies to enforce federal immigration law.

Task force programs will continue through the end of the year so they can be reviewed, according to Atlanta-based ICE spokesman Vincent Picard.

The federal government is shifting its focus to other enforcement programs, he said. Those include Secure Communities, in which fingerprints of people booked at local jails are shared with the Department of Homeland Security, which checks them against its immigration databases and decides if detainees should be held for deportation. That program also is in place at the Beaufort County Detention Center.

"The Secure Communities screening process, coupled with federal officers, is more consistent, efficient and cost-effective in identifying and removing criminal and other priority aliens," Picard said.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is one of only four law-enforcement agencies in the state with the authority to enforce immigration laws within their jurisdictions through the federal program. It is the only one with a task force -- seven deputies who can conduct investigations and make arrests.

If the task force folds, there will be more pressure on federal immigration agents based in Charleston, Tanner said.

"We don't have an abundance of immigration agents in South Carolina," he said.

Other groups, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have called for an end to Secure Communities and 287(g) agreements. The ACLU sent a letter -- also signed by the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition -- to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to stop the programs.

However, Eric Esquivel, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and publisher of La Isla Magazine, said he supports the task force -- as long as it follows its mandate and targets high-priority criminals living in the country illegally.

"I'm an advocate for what it's intended for, which is to go after hardened criminal activity such as drug trafficking, human trafficking or serious crimes," Esquivel said. "However, I think it's a misuse of resources to go after people for minor traffic offenses."

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Related content:
SC immigration-rights groups condemn federal program, July 27, 2012
Sheriff, solicitor win state GOP awards, May 11, 2011
Federal illegal immigration operation ends in Beaufort County, Oct. 19, 2008