Monday, August 13, 2012

New SC immigration police unit to focus on serious crimes

A new police unit is set to hit the streets in South Carolina to track down immigrants who commit crimes, but its officers will not have the authority to check suspects’ residency status.

The S.C. Immigration Enforcement Unit – the only one of its kind in the nation – was created by state lawmakers to target immigrants who are in South Carolina illegally and might also be breaking other laws.

But it did not receive the necessary federal approval for its officers to check a person’s residency status. That’s because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) discontinued the program that empowered local agencies to act on the federal government’s behalf.

Still, the unit’s commander said not knowing who is here legally or illegally will not handicap his officers – and that they will still investigate crimes committed by immigrants.

The six officers in the new unit mostly will work undercover as they investigate immigrants who are involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking and other serious crimes. The unit will not spend its time hunting for illegal immigrants on the state’s highways or at job sites, said Lt. Eddie C. Johnson, the commander.

“We’re not trying to start a panic with people saying that these folks are out there trying to snatch people up,” Johnson said.

But advocates for the state’s Hispanic community are concerned that the unit will overstep its authority because it lacks the ability to determine whether anyone is in the country illegally.

“They will be stepping into dangerous territory if they don’t have the required training,” said Tammy Beshearse, an attorney with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

The S.C. Immigration Enforcement Unit was created in 2011 when the state’s latest immigration law went into effect. The unit, which falls under the S.C. Department of Public Safety, has been in the organizational stages for the past year. Now its officers are almost ready to begin working the streets, Johnson said.

There have been few models to follow as no other state has a similar unit, said Johnson, an S.C. Highway Patrol veteran who came out of retirement to command the unit.

“When I say we started from scratch, I mean we started from scratch,” Johnson said. “There was nothing but an empty room.”

The unit, which has its own insignia and uniforms, was designed to have 12 members, including a commander and an administrative assistant. So far, six officers have been hired, Johnson said. Plans for hiring four more officers have not been finalized, he said.

The state gave the unit $1.3 million last year to start up but organizers only spent $440,723. This year, the unit will operate on a $689,780 budget.

Although the S.C. unit didn’t receive ICE’s approval to check immigration status, they still have been working with the federal agency.

The six officers have been training with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies, Johnson said. The unit also will provide immigration enforcement training to other police agencies in South Carolina.

The General Assembly created the unit at the request of Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, who did not agree with an earlier provision that would have allowed police officers to be sued if they failed to comply with requirements to check people’s immigration status.

The law required the unit to sign an agreement with ICE that would give its officers authority to investigate suspects’ immigration status.

However, ICE discontinued those agreements in February because federal authorities did not find them to be effective, said Vincent Picard, a spokesman in ICE’s Atlanta office. Other programs such as Secure Communities, which checks immigration status of anyone booked in a jail, work better, he said. That program operates in all county jails in South Carolina.

Beshearse, who serves as an advocate for immigrants, said she thought the unit’s purpose was to assist local sheriffs and police departments in determining whether someone is a legal immigrant. Without the federal agreement, though, she said she was concerned about how the officers would determine which criminals were immigrants.

“They run the risk of the federal government stepping in and saying ‘What are you doing?’” she said.

The immigration unit will be able to investigate people suspected of violating state law and make arrests for those crimes. But when it comes to determining their residency status, they must call ICE, Picard said.

Johnson said his unit will work closely with ICE as it investigates foreign-born criminals. And he is aware that his officers could be walking a fine line when it comes to racial profiling.

“I don’t think anyone should think that just because of race, color or religion that they should expect to see us,” he said.


PA: Hazleton's immigration law back in court Wed.

Lawyers on both sides of an immigration battle that propelled Hazleton into the national spotlight nearly six years ago will base testimony on court rulings from related disputes in Arizona and Farmers Branch, Texas, when the case resumes Wednesday in federal appeals court.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the city of Hazleton have filed briefs and will make oral arguments before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

The appeals court, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to take another look at Hazleton's case, will write the next chapter in a long-standing dispute over the city's rental registration ordinance and related Illegal Immigration Relief Act.

The laws, which were never enforced, essentially bar businesses from hiring, and landlords from harboring, illegal immigrants.

The case that has become known as "Lozano, et al. v. City of Hazleton" includes plaintiffs Pedro Lozano, Casa Dominicana of Hazleton Inc., Hazleton Hispanic Business Association and the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition.

Parties on both sides of the dispute say they're confident heading into Wednesday's appearance before the appeals court.

Omar C. Jadwat, an attorney with ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, filed a 32-page brief on behalf of plaintiffs addressing the effects a Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's immigration law has on Hazleton's ordinances.

"In certain ways, they're both kind of directed at the same end - to make life miserable for people so that they leave," Jadwat contends. "The Hazleton law, in certain ways, is more direct about prohibiting basically residence of certain people in the City of Hazleton."

Kris Kobach, a lawyer who wrote Hazleton's ordinances and serves as Kansas secretary of state, believes Supreme Court rulings on similar immigration law in Arizona and Farmers Branch bolster Hazleton's chances of getting a ruling in its favor.

Similar laws

The Supreme Court in late June struck down parts of the Arizona law but upheld a portion that gave law enforcement the ability to check the immigration status of people they arrest. Federal officials who challenged the Arizona law did not contest changes made to a previous law that forces Arizona's employers to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm eligibility of employees and imposes penalties on employers who knowingly employ illegal aliens.

The latter provisions are similar to Hazleton's ordinances.

Kobach filed a brief on Aug. 1 that calls the Third Circuit Court's attention to a ruling from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court that vacates a previous panel decision regarding an immigration ordinance proposed in Farmers Branch, Texas.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit was split 2-1 on the Farmers Branch ordinance, which would require that tenants register with a building inspector who would verify their lawful immigration status.

On July 31, however, the Fifth Circuit granted a petition for a rehearing en banc in the Farmers Branch case, which Kobach said in a legal brief has "the immediate effect of vacating the panel decision in that case."

Kobach said plaintiffs in Hazleton's case argued in March that the Third Circuit court follow the now-vacated Farmers Branch opinion.

"Such reliance would be misplaced, due to the fact that the panel opinion no longer has any precedential effect," Kobach wrote. "There is now no opinion in any circuit concerning an ordinance similar to Hazleton's that can be said to offer an even indirect support for Plaintiff-Appellees's position."


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