Beaufort County begins crackdown on illegal immigrants

July 13, 2008 

Every suspected illegal immigrant booked in the Beaufort County jail since the beginning of the month -- regardless of the severity of the crime -- is being turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

It's called Operation Surge, and local law enforcement officials say it's the start of a major new crackdown on illegal immigrants in the county, home to one of the largest Hispanic communities in the state.

So far this month, 55 inmates are being held for ICE, compared with 16 in June. ICE is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services.

ICE used to put priority on people who had committed serious crimes. Suspected illegal immigrants charged with minor offenses such as driving without a license and other traffic violations were released on bond, often never to be seen again, authorities said.

Now, the county is holding every suspected illegal immigrant regardless of the charge.

A look at the county's jail log shows the majority of suspected illegal immigrants are being held on traffic offenses. A few are even being held for allegedly violating state wildlife laws for fishing without a license.

The operation started just as Beaufort County got a big boost in its efforts to root out illegal immigrants.

Three Beaufort County sheriff's deputies recently graduated from a four-week course that gives them the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. Two others will attend the class later this month.

The county's team of five deputies with the authority to investigate a person's immigration status will be a fixture at the Beaufort jail, where they'll identify those suspected of being illegal and ultimately pass them on to ICE. They'll also investigate crimes illegal immigrants are suspected of committing, businesses identified by county auditors as possibly hiring illegal immigrants and, occasionally, participate in federal roundups in the area.

The deputies also will, for the first time, be able to verify the real names of people booked in the county jail by using a federal computer system that contains photos, names and fingerprints. In the past, people often gave fake or incorrect names, making it nearly impossible to track them.

"We were booking them into the county jail based on who they told us they were," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.

ICE agents will be stationed at the county jail as well as county jails in Charleston, Richland, Lexington, Greenville and Spartanburg counties for the next 90 days, Tanner said. Their goal is to get an accurate snapshot of how many illegal immigrants are booked in the state's jails.

Once an inmate has satisfied local charges by paying a fine or serving jail time, ICE will then determine if he or she will face deportation.

The initiative has resulted in an increase of prisoners at the already packed county jail, which was designed for 250 inmates.

As of Friday, the jail housed 397 prisoners. The jail is staffed with some additional guards as a result of the operation, jail director Philip Foot said.

"I'm not going to say I'm bursting at the seams right now," Foot said. "It's inching, but that's what we have to deal with. We'll continue doing what we do, keeping the community safe."

Tanner and the S.C. Sheriff's Association have proposed three regional prisons around the state to hold illegal immigrants and take the pressure off local jails. The association sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in April seeking permission for the plan.

Tanner, in a speech last week and an interview with The Island Packet, said Operation Surge and his new immigration deputies will begin to have a major impact in the area.

He predicted many businesses in the area will have to raise their wages to hire native workers or do more work with fewer employees.

"Much of the impact is going to be on the service industry," Tanner said. "A percentage of the foreign-born illegals are going to look to move to other areas of the state that are sanctuaries, so to speak, because this is no longer a sanctuary."

ICE did not return phone messages left Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

THE HUMAN IMPACT

The changes have sent a ripple of fear throughout the Hispanic community in Beaufort County.

Eleazor Morato, 20, of Hilton Head Island, was arrested July 4 while riding a four-wheeler on Otter Hole Road. The native of Mexico who worked on the island as a busboy does not have a driver's license.

Deputies carted him off in front of his longtime girlfriend, who is six months pregnant with a girl, according to his brother, who asked not to be named for fear he'll be deported.

Morato was in the process of paying off bills, and sent money back home to his family.

"It's affected the family tremendously," said his brother through a translator. "It's affected us emotionally."

Eleazor Morato was transferred to an ICE facility in Charleston. The family said they haven't been able to speak with him since he was arrested, and have no idea how to visit him.

Henry Roldan, a Hilton Head translator, said there's a great deal of confusion in the Hispanic community.

"Remember, they have families," he said. "They have husbands. They have wives. They have sisters. They have brothers. They have feelings. The families are crying. The families feel terrible about this. They are emotional because they are totally helpless."

A forum Wednesday night at Holy Family Catholic Church drew about 100 people eager to learn about immigration laws.

In another incident, Paola Fernandez, 20, of White Oaks Apartments in Bluffton, was arrested early July 6 during a family dispute.

Her 14-year-old sister, who lives in Ridgeland, had run away from home and showed up at her door. Fernandez called her parents, who had already reported the runaway to the Ridgeland Police Department.

When Beaufort County sheriff's deputies arrived to return the sister to Ridgeland, the teenage girl ran away again. The two deputies ran after her and eventually knocked her to the ground, according to police reports and family accounts.

Fernandez protested and, holding her 1-year-old baby, began to interfere with the officers. She, too, was subdued and charged with resisting arrest and interfering with a law enforcement officer, according to police reports and family accounts.

Fernandez, an Argentinean who worked for a cleaning service, is now being held for ICE. She is the second member of her extended family to be picked up in Operation Surge. Her brother-in-law was arrested Monday for driving without a license. The family said he was dropping off applications for work.

Fernandez's husband and her mother, who asked not to be identified, have been caring for the 1-year-old and are trying to get paperwork in order to have the ability to take the child -- a U.S. citizen -- back to Argentina to be reunited with his mother once she deported.

"I want to tell the whole Hispanic community not to trust the police because they are immigration," said the mother through a translator. "As a group, we need to unite. We have to do something. We have to stop what's going on because what's going to happen to the children? Who's going to take care of them?"

'TOUGH' ENFORCEMENT

Reluctance to trust deputies who can now enforce immigration law will be a challenge, Tanner said. His officers will typically only investigate the legal status of people suspected of crimes, he said.

"It's tough because there are foreign-born illegals in this community that are hard-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people that are great," Tanner said. "Kudos to them. I feel for those folks, but I can't pick and choose. ... At the end of the day, we follow the laws. And the law as it relates to foreign-born illegals is that, if you're here illegally and you commit a crime, you're going to be deported."

If recent history is an indication, a great number of county residents will be welcoming the news of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Illegal immigration opponents have been calling for action in Beaufort County for years, a call that only got louder last year when efforts at comprehensive federal immigration reform collapsed.

Activists have tried over the years, for instance, to get Hilton Head Island to require all business-license applicants prove that their employees are legal citizens. A condominium complex on the island last year considered requiring residents to submit I-9 forms to verify they were in the country legally.

Beaufort County Council's Lawful Employment Ordinance, which went into effect this year, requires random audits of employment records to determine if businesses are hiring undocumented workers. The county originally considered a much harsher version of the ordinance that would have let residents lodge complaints against any business suspected of hiring illegal workers.

State legislators also succeeded this year in passing an illegal immigration bill that penalizes businesses caught hiring illegal workers.

HISPANIC EXODUS?

The laws on the state and local level, plus an overall negative attitude toward illegal immigrants, has led to a minor exodus of Hispanic residents from the area this year, business owners and Hispanic leaders say.

Tanner insists his officers aren't specifically looking for illegal immigrants. The recent spate of people with immigration holds at the county jail strictly is the result of investigating crimes the deputies encounter throughout the

normal course of their shifts, he said.

But many in the Hispanic community wish officers would be more selective about who they pass on to ICE.

"They may not be doing anything illegal, but is it moral?" asked Eric H. Esquivel, president of La Isla, a bilingual magazine.

Staff writer Tim Donnelly contributed to this report.

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