The demise of a federal program that trains local police officers to enforce certain aspects of federal immigration law raises more questions in an already confusing debate.
And it makes all the more necessary detailed guidance from the state Attorney General's Office about how officers are to carry out immigration enforcement under state law. Earlier this month, a federal judge lifted his order against implementing a section of state law that allows immigration status checks of people first detained for other reasons.
Closer to home, a task force of Beaufort County sheriff's deputies trained to act as federal immigration agents under the section of federal immigration law known as 287(g) will remain intact until January, but after that no one knows what might happen.
The Department of Homeland Security says task force programs will continue through the end of the year so they can be reviewed. The department is shifting its focus to other programs, such as Secure Communities. Fingerprints of those booked at local jails are shared through the FBI with Homeland Security, which checks them against its immigration databases to determine whether they should be held for deportation.
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The 2011 state immigration law requires a new statewide Immigration Enforcement Unit to participate in the 287(g) program and lists the unit as one of the entities local police officers should contact to determine the residency status of someone they suspect of being here illegally.
But the federal program was discontinued before that training happened, according to an August story by The Associated Press. That means officers in the new unit don't have the authority to check suspects' residency status.
Still, the officers have trained with federal immigration officials and other agencies. They are said to be investigating immigrants suspected of violating state law, with the unit focusing on such crimes as human trafficking, gang violence and drug smuggling.
After federal Judge Richard Gergel lifted his injunction against status checks, some law enforcement officials said they would wait for specific direction from the state Attorney General's Office before starting to enforce the provision.
We again urge Attorney General Alan Wilson to give that guidance as soon as possible. Gergel's ruling came with the warning that it was still illegal for officers to stop people solely to check their immigration status or to detain them for more than "a reasonable amount of time as allowed by law" while checking their status.
And lawmakers should address the provisions creating the Immigration Enforcement Unit and setting out its duties. Without the 287(g) program and with the unit not having the authority to check immigration status, the law needs to be rewritten and the purpose of the unit reviewed to make sure it can accomplish what lawmakers originally intended.
That includes a section requiring an officer to file a report with the state Department of Public Safety when he or she contacts the Immigration Enforcement Unit but doesn't make an arrest or issue a citation. The report must include the age, gender and race or ethnicity of the driver stopped. The Public Safety Department is to maintain a database on the information collected and post a report on its website.
If the officer doesn't contact the unit to determine immigration status -- and there's no reason to do so if it doesn't have the authority to check someone's status -- what then? Have we lost a tool aimed at helping to detect profiling?
The law must match the new reality of federal immigration policy and the Immigration Enforcement Unit's authority.