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Sheriff P.J. Tanner announced Monday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will be training four local sheriff's deputies to enforce federal immigration law in Beaufort County.
While training and technology costs will be covered by ICE, Tanner told Beaufort County Council members they will have to find roughly $320,000 in their budget to replace the four deputies being assigned to the new immigration task force. The council largely was congratulatory and indicated that finding the money wouldn't be a problem.
For two years, Tanner has been meeting with ICE, trying to get county jail employees the authority to identify the immigration status of inmates, under ICE's 287(g) program.
That deal fell through because the county didn't have any free bed space to house illegal immigrant detainees. ICE customarily has asked local governments in the jail program to put aside a set number of beds for inmates determined to be in the country illegally.
After having all but given up on 287(g), Tanner said he learned Thursday that four deputies will be trained under a different part of the program as "task force officers" and given the authority not only to identify the status of inmates, but also to carry out immigration-related investigations.
He attributed the sudden inclusion into the federal training program to the involvement of the governor's office, which lobbied ICE on Beaufort County's behalf.
"This has been a long-fought battle," Tanner said, "and unfortunately it ended up being a political struggle.
He said Gov. Mark Sanford, his former chief of staff and current GOP candidate for state Senate Tom Davis and U.S. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint were involved in promoting the county's inclusion in the 287(g) program.
"A lot of these folks are up for re-election this year, so the pace picked up," Tanner said.
Graham is up for re-election and Davis is a challenger for the state Senate seat representing Beaufort County.
Responding to a question from council about whether the program would deter illegal immigrants from coming to the county, Tanner said, "It's definitely a move in the right direction."
Tanner noted that the program would be countywide. He also said it would be more effective in dissuading illegal immigrants from coming to the county than random audits of businesses to check employees' federally-required immigration forms. The random audit ordinance only applies in unincorporated parts of the county.
Councilman Jerry Stewart of Sun City Hilton Head said, "I'm hoping ... all this information gets out and (illegal immigrants) say (they) don't want to come to Beaufort County."
Tanner said South Carolina currently has eight immigration officers, so the four local deputies are a huge boost in the state's ability to go after immigration-related crime, a role usually reserved for federal ICE agents.
He declined to answer what type of investigations the deputies, all of whom speak Spanish, might carry out.
Tanner also said it was impossible to gauge what effect local immigration officers would have on the county's already overcrowded jail.