South Carolina Immigration Unit on Hold; Some Legislators Want it Now

A South Carolina state police unit that will enforce immigration laws under the guidelines of the controversial federal program known as "287g" will not be active until training takes place, says the state public safety chief.

That may not come for at least a year, he said, drawing complaints from a state senator who helped push through the measure creating the unit.

Interim Department of Public Safety director Col. F. K. Lancaster Jr. told The Associated Press that the agency is waiting to hear from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about undergoing its four-week 287g training. It effectively deputizes local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws on the streets and in jails.

"That may take a year, year-and-a-half to hear back," Lancaster said. "We have to wait on the 287g training before we can even start the unit. ... Once they give us the approval for training, we'll get the unit started at that point."

Legislators gave his agency $1.3 million this fiscal year specifically for the unit. Its creation -- complete with distinctive uniforms, badges and vehicles -- is required under a new state law, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley in June.

Effective Jan. 1, all law enforcement officers are required to call federal immigration officials -- or the state unit, once it's certified -- if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. The question must follow an arrest or traffic stop for something else. The measure bars officers from holding someone solely on that suspicion. Opponents railed against the measure as encouraging racial profiling, and a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union is expected.

The new state unit will have 10 officers, a supervisor and an administrative assistant. A job description for the supervisor is approved, but the job isn't posted for applications yet, Lancaster said a month into his new role.

His former boss, Mark Keel, signed a letter dated June 30 to ICE's director, requesting the training, shortly before transferring to his new job as the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division.

Lancaster said Keel also applied for the new unit to undergo a separate, two-day federal class that provides general information on the process, but gives no enforcing ability. 

Officers will be hired for the unit from within the agency, and can get a jump-start with the informational training, but then will return to their regular duties until the 287g training is approved, Lancaster said.

"We're just doing the Title 19 training to get ahead of the game. It doesn't give them anything," he said.

ICE currently has partner agreements with 69 law enforcement agencies in 24 states, including four in South Carolina, with the sheriff's departments in Beaufort, Charleston, Lexington and York counties. Since 2006, the program has certified more than 1,240 officers to enforce immigration law. Next week, 23 officers from seven states -- including one from Lexington County -- will start the training at the ICE academy in Charleston, according to the agency.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said his agency applied for the training 18 months ago. He said he was told in January the paperwork was sitting on the director's desk in Washington, awaiting a decision, and he's heard nothing new since.

"We're patiently waiting," Thompson said.

Sen. Larry Martin said waiting on the federal government for the state unit is unacceptable.

"I would be very disappointed if ... we're not going to create the agency until the federal government is ready to cooperate. I don't know that they'll ever be willing to cooperate," said Martin, R-Pickens. "I don't think there's any reason to wait. If we sit around and wait on the federal government, we may wait forever."

While awaiting the training, Martin said, the unit could still contact federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally just as local agencies do.

"Is it better to have 287g training? Sure. It's preferable to have that certification to interact in an efficient way. You don't get the response as quickly, but it's not mandatory," Martin said.

And he believes the unit could go ahead and educate local law enforcement on how to legally comply with the new law.

"This is what you do without crossing a line, to talk through scenarios of a lawful law enforcement stop. ... Just because people look different, you can't stop and ask them for their identification," Martin said. "Those types of discussions and understandings are a major thrust of this agency."

But Lancaster said the training is precisely what the unit needs to be able to do that.

Andre Segura, an ACLU attorney in New York, agreed with Lancaster's interpretation of the law, noting its last paragraph specifies that the portion concerning the new unit takes effect upon the Department of Public Safety getting 287g authority. Regardless, he said, his group believes the law is unconstitutional and vows to sue before the rest of it is set to take effect.

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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