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A three-month federal operation in Beaufort County's jail and five others in South Carolina has expired, meaning suspected illegal immigrants charged with minor crimes now can post bond, according to jail records.
Under Operation Surge, which began July 1 and expired Sept. 26, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were posted in six county jails across South Carolina to get a snapshot of how many illegal immigrants were moving through the state's criminal justice system.
The agents identified every foreign-
born person arrested, regardless of how minor the charges, and put "holds" on all suspected illegal immigrants, essentially preventing them from posting bond and being released.
Those suspected illegal immigrants were taken to other cities -- mainly in the Southeast -- where deportation hearings were held.
Before the operation, most illegal immigrants had been allowed to post bond and were released unless they had been charged with serious crimes.
In Beaufort County, ICE agents put 280 holds on prisoners over the three-month period, according to jail director Philip Foot. In a typical month before the operation, only about a dozen holds were placed on prisoners.
It's unclear how many holds were placed on inmates at other county jails in the state or how many of those suspected illegal immigrants actually were deported. ICE did not respond to requests for those statistics.
After Operation Surge ended, ICE agents stopped putting holds on inmates accused of minor crimes, such as driving offenses, littering and public disorderly conduct, according to the Beaufort County jail log.
Between Sept. 26 and Saturday, only six prisoners have been held for ICE.
The focus has shifted to investigating suspected illegal immigrants who are committing more serious crimes, local law enforcement officials say.
Since ICE left the Beaufort County jail, a team of five Beaufort County sheriff's deputies trained to enforce federal immigration laws has spent most of its time outside of the detention center investigating crimes
believed to have been committed by suspected illegal immigrants, said Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
The 287(g) team, named after the federal provision allowing local officers to be trained to enforce federal immigration laws, also is investigating companies that county auditors suspect of hiring illegal immigrants or of not having sufficient
"Our 287(g) task force is not a jail team," Tanner said. "The surge operation that was in the jail was strictly for the detention and removal of foreign-born illegal immigrants. Normal 287(g) programs (elsewhere) are jail-based. Ours is an investigative task force."
In general, "investigations take priority over the identification process," Tanner said, noting that the agents do spend some of their time identifying prisoners, especially when the arresting agency has trouble doing so.
Tanner, an advocate of regional holding facilities in South Carolina to detain suspected illegal immigrants, said he plans to use statistics from Operation Surge to help state officials lobby for federal funding to build three holding jails across the state.
Meanwhile, since the end of the surge operation, overcrowding at the county jail has eased. On two occasions during the surge, the prisoner count had exceeded the jail's 255-prisoner capacity by nearly 200 people.
The highest prisoner count was about 446 inmates, Foot said. On Thursday, it was 390.
"We're starting to see a little bit of a dip," he said.
The jail still follows a state law requiring employees to send the names of all foreign-born prisoners to ICE, which decides whether they should be held for deportation hearings, Foot said.
As Operation Surge geared up, leaders in the county's Hispanic communities complained about what they viewed as a heavy-handed approach to dealing with suspected illegal immigrants.
They voiced concerns that families were being broken up over minor offenses and that many Latino crime victims were afraid to call the police for fear of being deported.
In the September issue of La Isla, a bilingual magazine based on Hilton Head Island, publisher Eric Esquivel wrote, "On a more personal note, we are concerned with the fear escalating among Latinos living in this area and hope they do not become discouraged and abandon a community we have worked so hard to establish."
Last month, Tanner said he had seen evidence some Hispanic families -- particularly those with children -- had left the area so they wouldn't be deported if they were pulled over for a traffic violation.
Esquivel agreed with that assessment. He said he knows of highly successful Latino citizens who are contemplating moving from the area out of fear they and their children are being judged based on their language or appearance.
"We just drove off a huge source of revenue generation," Esquivel said. "Those people were spending money at the grocery store, paying car taxes and property taxes. You name it. Everything you and I do. I think we will see the full economic impact over quite some time."
Others disagree that ridding the area of illegal immigrants is an economic loss.
Ebba Gamer, president of the anti-illegal immigration group Citizens for a Better Community, said such immigrants are a drain on federal, state and local governments because they require services but don't pay taxes.
She said the issue is most prevalent in health care, where the uninsured end up costing the government and average citizens.
"This nation is in big trouble, and until we stop pandering to all these special interest groups, we're not going to solve our economic problems," said the Moss Creek resident. "That's why I'm involved in this issue because I want to leave the U.S. a good place for my grandchildren."