At a Bluffton Tea party meeting on Tuesday, state and county officials criticized the federal government's decision to withhold information on the immigrant children it has sent throughout South Carolina.
"It's disrespectful to state sovereignty," state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, told those gathered at Golden Corral in Bluffton.
Davis was joined by Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner in saying the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has overstepped its bounds by keeping the state and the county in the dark. Those sentiments were met with approving murmurs and applause from the crowd of about 75.
The federal agency's Office of Refuge Settlement has relocated about 400 unaccompanied immigrant children to South Carolina, where they may live and attend school until their immigration status is ruled upon in court. The agency, however, will not tell the public more, including the identities, ages, and countries of origin of the children.
Of the 37,477 unaccompanied children relocated to sponsors across the United States between Jan. 1 and July 29, 434 were brought to South Carolina, according to figures updated Tuesday by the settlement office.
That total has grown by 84 since July 7, the settlement office's website said.
Department spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said data is not broken down by county, and he did not respond to requests for more details.
In a prepared statement, Gov. Nikki Haley said the state can handle a few hundred sponsored children, but thousands would place an "unacceptable burden on our public services and taxpayers."
A MATTER OF TRUST?
At the Bluffton meeting, several attendees asked Davis and Tanner what could be done to counter the relocation of the children.
Davis said the state attorney general could revoke the charters of non-profit organizations receiving federal money to support the children. Tanner questioned whether the relocation could be considered a form of human trafficking, and argued it has become too easy for people to cross the country's borders.
"We're giving away welfare like it's Tic Tacs," he said.
Reached Tuesday, George Kanuck of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition said he has also struggled to get information, but said members of the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charleston on Hilton Head told him there may have been two or three children relocated to the Lowcountry in recent months.
"I doubt very highly there's going to be more than a few people at this point," Kanuck said, adding, "[the organization] didn't want to raise any hackles that all of a sudden three children would cause the Lowcountry to go into economic disaster or something like that."
After Tuesday's meeting, Tanner was asked whether he was concerned releasing more information could endanger the children and their sponsors.
The sheriff said that was for states to determine -- after they have the names.
"I think there needs to be trust between the federal government and state governments," he said. "I know we would do the right thing. But the first order is trust."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
SC delegation wants answers about immigrant children coming to the state, July 29, 2014