An agreement approved Tuesday by a federal judge prevents law enforcement agencies from prolonging traffic stops or jailing people longer than necessary merely to determine their immigration status.
The agreement, which blocks parts of a 2011 state immigration law, still allows officers to ask drivers they pull over for citizenship documentation. The agreement was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston.
Immigrants also cannot be arrested or transferred to federal authorities solely for being in the country illegally, and people who fail to carry immigration documents won't face criminal penalties, the settlement says. Gergel approved the agreement between the state and a civil rights coalition that challenged the law a day after it was proposed.
George Kanuck of Bluffton, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, said the agreement was a "small but significant step" toward immigration reform. Kanuck said the changes would help Hispanics who are "living in the shadows" because they fear being detained or deported.
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"We're happy and appreciative they've limited the ability of the law," Kanuck said. "... There was a fear among the Hispanic people we work for over this bill. They are very happy with the agreement."
Beaufort County law enforcement officers have helped enforce immigration law in recent years.
A task force made up of Beaufort County sheriff's deputies and authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security once targeted hardened criminals who were here illegally. The task force disbanded in January 2013, as did others around the country, due to a lack of funding, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
The Beaufort County Detention Center now uses the Secure Communities program to check the immigration status of people booked into the jail. Secure Communities runs the their fingerprints through Homeland Security and FBI databases to check their immigration status.
Tanner said he had not read the new agreement and declined to comment on it.
However, he said that his deputies can only notify federal authorities of an arrest if a Secure Communities check shows the person arrested is in the country illegally. Traffic stops cannot be extended beyond the time necessary to check driver's license and vehicle registration information, Tanner added.
Kanuck said Beaufort County officers weren't as aggressive in pursuing illegal immigrants as officers in neighboring counties, such as Jasper County. The Beaufort County program "was going after actual criminals," he said.
Attempts Tuesday to reach Jasper County Sheriff Gregory Jenkins were unsuccessful.
Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Michelle Lapointe represented Beaufort resident Yajaira Benet-Smith in the lawsuit that resulted in the agreement, originally filed in October 2011. Benet-Smith, a Venezuelan-born state resident, was the only legal immigrant who was a plaintiff; three other illegal immigrants were included in the suit, but their identities were withheld.
In the suit, Benet-Smith said she was worried about being pulled over without her green card and arrested. Lapointe said she and Benet-Smith were "very pleased" with the settlement.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.