Beaufort County's top law enforcement official criticized an Arizona-style immigration bill passed by the S.C. House last week as political pandering that gives "false teeth" to departments and agencies that lack the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
Absent immigration reform at the federal level, the legislation burdens cash-strapped local police and clogs already-crowded jails, local officials said.
The House voted 69-43 Tuesday to give key approval to an amended bill that would require state and local law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status during arrests and routine traffic stops if an officer suspects that person is in the country illegally.
Until the federal government decides to better enforce immigration law, efforts at the state level are meaningless, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.
"It's feel-good legislation to make constituents think they're doing something, when in fact they're doing nothing but building a big, huge smoke screen," Tanner said. "This bill gives local law enforcement false teeth, unless (like Beaufort County) you have a memorandum of agreement with the federal government."
The Sheriff's Office is one of only four local law enforcement agencies in the state that have agreements with federal officials to enforce immigration laws within their jurisdictions. The Sheriff's Office spends about $500,000 a year for seven deputies to enforce federal immigration law.
Those found to be in the country illegally would be turned over to immigration officials, according to the bill. Those whose status could not be determined could not be detained.
Having to detain individuals for longer periods until immigration officials can respond or taking them to jail would bog down local law enforcement, said Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister.
"Most of the people we encounter who we suspect may be in the country illegally ... are pulled over for minor traffic violations" that would not meet federal guidelines for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement involvement, McAllister said.
With no guarantee of assistance from federal authorities, the law will waste time and money, Tanner and McAllister said.
That is why the S.C. Sheriff's Association, of which Tanner is president, wants federal assistance to enforce immigration laws. Such help would include training, money for adequate detention space and the authority to investigate, arrest, detain and transport those here illegally.
Until that's done, local authorities will lack meaningful tools to enforce immigration laws, Tanner said.
"I am a strong proponent of immigration enforcement, but it needs to be addressed effectively," he said.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he hopes to address the "unfunded mandate" for local law enforcement next week when the amended bill returns to the Senate. Davis voted for a different version of the bill.
"I also agree with (Tanner) that it has to be a federal-level solution," Davis said. "But short of that, there are some things sovereign states are able to do to curb illegal immigration in their states.
"What I want to do is push the envelope as far as we can in order to act as aggressively as we can to curb illegal immigration in this state, because of the direct cost it has to our state in terms of health care, education and prison population. Second to that, I want to make sure as we go about doing that, we listen to people like (Tanner) who are telling us about the practical implications."
The (Columbia) State and The (Charleston) Post and Courier newspapers contributed to this report