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3/3 Beaufort, SC: Jails might become new immigrant gatekeepers
Released 06 March 2007  By LORI YOUNT - Beaufort Gazette

Jails might become new immigrant gatekeepers

March 3 2007
By LORI YOUNT - Beaufort Gazette

A group of state legislators wants all South Carolina jails to follow Beaufort County's ambition by requiring them to gain the federal powers necessary to check the immigration status of people arrested on felony and driving under the influence charges.

The proposal introduced in the House of Representatives in December has drawn fire from state law enforcement officials who say though Beaufort County may be able to afford the personnel, it would be pointless and even impossible for smaller counties to staff or fund the initiative.

Sponsoring legislators want to reduce the number of illegal immigrants local jails are burdened with, said Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, one of the bill's co-sponsors and the sponsor of bills prohibiting employment of illegal immigrants. He said he is willing to work with law enforcement to find the most seamless way to remove illegal immigrants from local jails as soon as possible.

"Because if they commit crimes, especially felonious crimes, I want to force the feds to do their jobs and to get them out," said Pitts, a retired Greenville police officer. "Unfortunately, the states have to address this."

At the advisement of S.C. Sheriff's Association Executive Director Jeff Moore, the bill was bumped back this week to a subcommittee from the House Judiciary Committee.

Moore said that for all counties to meet the proposal's requirement to make "a reasonable effort" to "determine the nationality" of a person confined on felony or driving under the influence charges, they'd have to apply to Congress for a special status under federal statute.

"What most people on committee didn't know is a jail or law enforcement just doesn't have open access to a database," he said. "We know some counties, such as Mecklenberg (N.C.) have successfully completed it, but it took them over $1 million to do it. They've got to realize Jasper County Council isn't going to do it. Beaufort might. But don't mandate everybody to do something the federal government controls."

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner in November announced his plan to obtain the federal status. Though he said he has no timeline on when Beaufort County would be given the OK, Tanner said training would start as soon as the federal designation is agreed upon with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

York County is also applying for the status.

The federal government will pay for the training of four deputies and seven corrections officer and computer equipment, Tanner said.

Extra costs to the county will be about $225,000 to hire seven more corrections officers so one trained officer is on duty to check immigration status of all inmates booked in at all times, Beaufort County Detention Center Director Phil Foot said.

He said he hopes the designation will help jail staff quickly process inmates who have already paid fines or bonds for misdemeanors but remain in jail taking up bed space due to federal immigration holds.

Tanner said his four police officers will be able to cooperate with federal agents more in investigations involving illegal immigrants.

Moore said a statewide measure wouldn't clear jails, in part because the way the designation works and in part because of federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement's limited regional resources.

"It doesn't help relieve jails at all," he said. "It's a total misunderstanding. (Federal agents) don't come and get them until they go on trial and go to prison."

Part of the bill also requires the State Law Enforcement Division to negotiate and receive this federal designation.

SLED Chief Robert Stewart said his office will have to do whatever the legislature mandates, but there are no plans to apply for federal powers of immigration enforcement.

"It's purely a manpower issue with us," said Stewart, who estimated achieving the status would cost more than $1 million. "There's more than enough work for every SLED agent," adding most suspected illegal immigrants the department deals with are victims of crime.

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