WIS Investigates: How immigration program has impacted Lexington County

WIS Investigates: How immigration program has impacted Lexington County

LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC (WIS) - One doesn't need to go far from downtown Columbia to find signs of the Midlands' growing Hispanic community. A store on Sunset Boulevard in West Columbia, located on the spot where Sherman's troops managed to bounce cannonballs off the State House, is one of many businesses filling needs for its customers in the area.

Five years ago in Lexington County, that led to a crackdown on immigrants in the state who were here unlawfully under an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program known as 287(g). A federal anti-crime initiative that in Charleston, York and Lexington counties allowed sheriffs to forge agreements with ICE to enforce immigration rules and step up deportations.

Then-Sheriff James Metts signed on in 2010, pitching 287(g)'s virtues in a video.

"The program would lead to the veteran lawman's undoing - after the government caught him interfering with the detention process to benefit the owner of a Mexican restaurant chain," Metts said in the video from 2010.

"I was big on community service," Metts told WIS. "And one of the things we stress in our department is helping individuals."

Metts was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to "conspiracy to harbor an illegal alien." The charge was connected to how Metts handled his department's involvement in a program aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

The ICE-Lexington County effort only ran part of 2010, producing 34 deportations or what ICE calls "removals." The program accelerated the following year, kicking 480 people out of Lexington County and the country.

By then, organizations working with Hispanic communities started to see serious problems with 287(g).

"In 2012, we met with Sheriff Metts because we found out there were certain mobile home parks being targeted," said Gregory Torrales, of the S.C. Hispanic Leadership Council. "And individuals being stopped where they knew there were large undocumented Hispanic communities. And we addressed that and said, you know, this is basically profiling."

Julie Smithwick runs PASOs, which is a community outreach agency based at the University of South Carolina. While 287(g) had been designed in part to rid communities of people with significant criminal histories, she says even minor traffic violations could lead to families being torn apart, like this one example.

"His children get out of the car, run to the dad, holding on to legs crying. 'Don't take my daddy, don't take my daddy. Let him stay with us.' The guy was put into the car, going to the jail and within three days was deported," Smithwick explained. "Up to that time, the mother had not relied on any kind of public assistance. But now, she found herself in a situation where she had to. Because the breadwinner of her family was all of a sudden, you know, removed."

Attorney Charles Phipps has represented many targeted by Lexington County's version of 287(g) and says it hurts a lot of individuals.

"I mean I think it's a negative to the extent that so many people got put into the process, into the deportation process, you know, who were not criminals, who were not bad people," Phipps said. "And many of them have families, kids and, you know, it breaks up a lot of families and hurts a lot of individuals."

Smithwick, among those who say the program was counterproductive making a large portion of the community reluctant to report serious crime for fear of being discovered.

"We're struggling to have folks come out to the seminars that we offer and to, you know, trust in these resources that we're trying to help them connect to because they don't want to leave their house," Smithwick said. "What if they get stopped?"

"We all want safer communities, but the details have created this impasse that created a division between the Hispanic community and law enforcement," Torrales said.

The government's partnership with Lexington County resulted in more than 400 additional deportations since 2011, but it was suspended after Metts' indictment last year. With Metts now heading to prison, new sheriff Jay Koon is considering whether to revive the agreement.

His spokesman told us Koon is prohibited from commenting.

"I would recommend that there's no need to continue the 287(g) program," Phipps said. "That if you have individuals that are serious criminals and need to be deported, pick up the phone and call ICE officers, and they'll come pick them up. But in terms of establishing a program that's going to pull in every minor traffic offender, I don't see that as a good use of government resources."

An agreement signed by former sheriff Metts is scheduled to expire next year. That agreement allows either party to opt out.

ICE spokesman Vinnie Picard said his agency will meet with Koon, but the timing of that meeting has not been determined. He said Homeland Security adjusted the 287(g) program more than two years ago to focus on removal of people here in violation of immigration rules who also have significant criminal records. The updated policy also includes enhanced training, better oversight and record-keeping and strict rules against racial profiling.

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