Law enforcement officers across South Carolina have reservations about a bill that would force them to check the immigration status of people they detain.
Officers say the bill would create extra work for agencies that already are suffering from shortages in funding and manpower. They do not want to spend those limited resources on illegal immigrants who do not commit major crimes.
"We have to look beyond finding out if someone is legal," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. "What are we going to do with them? With budget cuts, is that a priority for law enforcement? Are we going to go after an illegal running a stop sign or are we going to go after major crime?"
David Latimer, executive director of the S.C. Troopers Association, also had logistical questions. They don't want to be tied up investigating someone's status while other, more serious problems are happening on interstates and highways, he said.
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"Obviously, we don't want our troopers tied up for hours and hours trying to adjudicate an immigrant when we have crashes or other calls for our service," he said. "That's not to take away from our immigration problem, but I don't want to overburden our troopers."
Lawmakers who support the bill believe it is necessary because the state has too many illegal immigrants who are placing a burden on public systems such as jails and schools. They want to discourage illegal immigrants from moving to South Carolina.
But several law enforcement experts said illegal immigrants are not responsible for much crime in South Carolina.
Reggie Lloyd, director of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, said Hispanics, Asians and other nonblack and nonwhite people - legal and illegal - account for less than 3 percent of all crimes in the state, according to annual statistics compiled by his agency.
Currently, illegal immigrants make up less than 1 percent of the population at the S.C. Department of Corrections. As of mid-January, 404 of the 23,144 people in the state's prisons were illegal immigrants, said John Barkley, the department spokesman.
Several law enforcement officers contacted for this story declined to comment on the bill. The directors of the S.C. Department of Public Safety and the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy declined, through their spokesmen, to comment, saying they did not talk about pending legislation.
The bill has stalled in the S.C. Senate in recent weeks as it waits behind other legislation on the agenda. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, one of the bill's chief supporters, has tried to push it to the top of the agenda, but those efforts have failed. Martin has vowed to use another procedural tactic this week to bring it up for debate on the floor.
The bill includes provisions that would require state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain or investigate for another legal violation.
A closer look
Here is a look at the provisions and how law enforcement would carry out those requirements if the bill becomes law:
The provision: A law enforcement officer must have reasonable suspicion before he tries to verify a suspect's residency status.
How it would work: An officer can't decide he has reasonable suspicion because a person has brown skin or speaks with a foreign accent, according to the bill. That also would be a violation of a person's civil rights.
Experienced law enforcement officers said that outside of making judgments on skin color and accents they are not sure what would constitute reasonable suspicion.
"That's going to get people in trouble," Lloyd said. "You can't run around and question people because they look 'that way.'"
Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, said a law enforcement officer might have reasonable suspicion if a person does not have a driver's license and does not speak English.
The provision: If a law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that someone is an illegal immigrant after he stops or detains him for another crime, he must try to determine whether that person is legal.
How it would work: An officer would be forbidden to make the decision himself. Under the proposed law, a driver's license from any state, a U.S. military ID, passport or a tribal identification card would lead the officer to assume the person was legally present.
If the suspect does not have these forms of identification, then the officer can call the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston, Vt. The center accepts calls from police 24 hours a day and uses federal databases to help identify people, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman in ICE's Charlotte office.
However, the database is not foolproof, Moore said.
If the support center is busy, police would have to wait for a response. And, local law enforcement officials have complained that the support center does not return calls to them but instead notifies an ICE officer of the findings, Moore said.
"I don't know how practical it is, but it's the only solution we have at our disposal," he said.
If the officer still can't determine residency status, he cannot detain a person for an extended amount of time and must let the person go if he would not otherwise take him to jail.
The provision: An officer can only detain someone for a reasonable amount of time as allowed by law.
How it would work: Police officers cannot detain someone for a lengthy amount of time without cause. However, it is not clear what would be considered a reasonable amount of time for investigating a person's citizenship status. That would have to be established, Lott said. Most likely, a judge would determine a reasonable amount of time if someone filed suit.
The provision: If an officer determines someone is illegally in the United States, he must notify ICE. Then, the officer and ICE decide who takes custody of the individual. The officer could take the person to a federal detention facility.
How it would work: Federal detention centers only will accept a suspect if he has a federal detainer, which means there is a case against the person, Moore said.
ICE places priority on which people it wants to target for deportation, Moore said. People who have committed serious crimes, such as murder or robbery, will be deported ahead of someone arrested for driving without a license, he said.
"We know ICE does not pick up everyone," he said.
Local sheriffs and police chiefs can't just drop an illegal immigrant off at a federal detention center.
"We can load them up in a van and drive them to the nearest facility, but if you don't have a federal detainer, then they're not going to take them," Moore said.