Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner has asked the Department Homeland Security for permission to revive a unit that uses specially trained county deputies to enforce federal immigration laws, which could include investigation, apprehension or detention of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
“I sent a letter this past Friday to Secretary (John) Kelly at Homeland Security asking that our 287(g) task force be reactivated as soon as possible,” Tanner said Tuesday morning, referring to a section of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that delegates to state and local officers the “authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions.”
The program — overseen by Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm, which uses memorandums of agreement to delegate authority — is controversial. There are two program models: the active “jail enforcement” model, and the task force model, which is currently inactive.
Opponents worry it could lead to racial profiling and damage relationships between law enforcement and the immigrant community. Proponents see an opportunity to bolster homeland security and to know who, exactly, resides in their community.
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As for Tanner, he sees it as a chance to remove “the worst of the worst” from the community and to be responsive to the citizens who elected him.
“The reason I went after 287(g) the first time is because many, many citizens in the county were asking for laws to be enforced which we had no jurisdiction over, and that would be the immigration law,” Tanner said.
The Sheriff’s Office had a task force for about three years until January 2013, when those units were scaled back nationwide by then-President Barack Obama’s administration. There were six deputies assigned to the force, Tanner said. Two of the original members — both Hispanic, fluent bilingual deputies — and, potentially, three other officers, would be reassigned to the new task force if it’s revived.
The reassignment will be a complete change of duty, Tanner said, and will not be accompanied by a bump in pay.
When asked if new deputies would be hired to fill any vacancies, Tanner said, “Not in this budget cycle.” The department would first have to determine if there was a need for more personnel, he said, then bring the matter to the county.
“The federal government is deputizing local police to do immigration work for them at the expense of the local county’s government,” said Bluffton immigration lawyer Aimee Deverall.
The cost of administering the program — including potentially hiring more deputies and detaining people waiting for deportation — is just one of her concerns. Others are potential racial profiling and violations of due process rights, she said.
“The primary concern is, when you have local police officers acting as immigration officers, how do you expect members of the community to come forward and feel comfortable reporting crimes to you?” Deverall asked.
When asked if he thought a revived task force would harm his agency’s relationship with the county’s immigrant community, Tanner said, “No.”
“The only thing that affects the relationship with any community is fake news,” Tanner said. “And I think the President (Donald Trump) has made that extremely clear in the conversations he’s had recently. ... The 287(g) program, when it was operational a few years back, did not have a negative impact on the Hispanic community or the immigrant community of Beaufort County. It actually built relationships.”
The program stems from the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, according to ICE.
Bluffton Police Department spokesperson Joy Nelson said her agency has not pursued any federal partnerships through 287(g).
“It really comes down to manpower,” she said, “where we really don’t have the bodies to put on a special task force for immigration.”
Tanner said he’s not aware of any other South Carolina sheriffs who have written to Homeland Security. A representative of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association could not be immediately reached for comment.
The S.C. Highway Patrol does not currently have an 287(g) task forces, according to spokesperson Lt. Kelley Hughes.
Tanner hasn’t heard back from Kelly regarding his letter, but he feels the political climate in Washington favors the action.
“With the ability to do that, that means we can go throughout Beaufort County and look for the worst of the worst, and I think the president has made that clear,” Tanner said.
“I think he is going to do it again tonight in his speech to Congress,” he said on Tuesday. “And I think he’s going to make it abundantly clear that we are looking for the gang bangers, the drug dealers, and those that are committing violent crimes.”
Two 287(g) program models
One model, which Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner is trying to revive, is a task force that operates with delegated power to enforce federal immigration laws. That program is not currently active, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Bryan Cox said.
The other — which is active according to Cox, and which does not grant any extra authority to local law enforcement — is a “jail enforcement” model, whereby local authorities, who are supervised by ICE agents, screen people who have been arrested and booked to find out their identity, background and country of origin. If the person is found to be in the United States illegally, ICE agents can detain the person. Tanner said the county does not currently participate in this model.
Three South Carolina counties — Charleston, Lexington and York — currently participate in the jail enforcement model.
ICE has agreements with 37 law enforcement agencies in 16 states, according to the agency’s website.
ICE has trained and certified more than 1,822 state and local officers to enforce immigration law.