U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dissolved a task force of Beaufort County deputies trained to act as federal immigration agents, along with every other program of its kind across the country.
The move means the seven deputies in the task force will no longer be doing street-level investigations aimed at identifying and arresting illegal immigrants, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. The task force focused on suspects believed to be hardened criminals who were in the country illegally.
However, Tanner hopes the deputies can continue to enforce federal immigration law in another way.
He is pushing to have the ICE-trained deputies reassigned to the Beaufort County Detention Center to determine if inmates are in the country illegally and to handle deportations.
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Both the defunct task-force program and a jail-based program were authorized under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to give federal powers to state and local law enforcement officers.
Although the task-force agreements have been abolished, jail programs have been reauthorized through June, Atlanta-based ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said.
Four other South Carolina counties have jail-based models, but the Beaufort County task force, which allowed deputies to question people about immigration status and make arrests, was the only one of its kind in the state. Picard said the dissolution was a "national decision not based on the merits of any particular program."
Federal authorities announced late last year the program would be scaled back in favor of the Secure Communities program, which is in use around the country, including Beaufort County. Under Secure Communities, all people booked in local jails have their fingerprints checked against immigration databases.
Tanner said he is asking officials in Washington, D.C., and federal immigration officials in Charleston to allow his ICE-trained deputies to work alongside that program. Deputies could follow up when an inmate's name appears on the Secure Communities database and issue a detainer -- also known as an "ICE hold" -- or start deportation proceedings.
"Instead of being able to go out on the street, all of their authority would be limited to the jail," Tanner said.
Although Tanner is disappointed the task force has been dissolved, other groups welcomed the news.
Immigration advocates and other civil-rights groups -- including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition -- have argued against programs that allow state and local immigration-enforcement authority, saying they encourage racial profiling and target low-level offenders.
- Sheriff's immigration task force could fold next year, Nov. 17, 2012
- SC immigration-rights groups condemn federal program, July 27, 2012
- Sheriff, solicitor win state GOP awards, May 11, 2011
- Beaufort County begins crackdown on illegal immigrants, July 13, 2008
- Overcrowding at county jail getting worse; illegal immigration crackdown contributes to problem, July 27, 2008
- Federal illegal immigration operations ends in Beaufort County, Oct. 19, 2008