COLUMBIA — A special South Carolina law enforcement unit that investigates criminal cases against illegal immigrants has been successful in its first few months, the governor and the state's top public safety official said Wednesday.
“Washington, D.C., has fought us on our illegal immigration situation for a very long time,” Gov. Nikki Haley said during a news conference at the Statehouse. “But we, right now, have one of the best immigration organizations.”
Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith said the eight-person unit focused on making cases against illegal immigrants suspected of breaking laws in the state has made numerous arrests – and secured some convictions for both felonies and misdemeanors – since it started in June. However, officials would not say how many arrests the unit has made.
Modeled in part on similar Arizona legislation, South Carolina's tough new immigration law has been in the news since it was passed by state lawmakers last year. The federal government sued in late 2011, challenging the constitutionality of the new policies. The policies include a provision requiring officers to check the immigration status of people they pull over if they suspect they're in the country illegally.
A federal judge blocked some portions of the new law from going into effect Jan. 1, including the status check provision. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned much of Arizona's similar law – but left that state's status check requirement in place – that same federal judge has said he needs to reconsider the ruling on South Carolina's law.
In South Carolina, officers in the special immigration enforcement unit work on complex cases against people who federal agents have already identified as being in the country illegally, Smith said.
Those cases can range from gang involvement to weapons possession and fraudulent documents, said Lt. Eddie Johnson, a veteran Highway Patrol trooper and former Sumter policeman who heads up the unit. He said the taskforce is the only one of its kind in the country in that it operates at a statewide level, not county by county. Johnson said his officers hope they can trace criminal activity to its roots.
“That is our goal, to try and find out what path – if someone got here illegally, what criminal activity brought them to South Carolina, what criminal activity they were involved in, and follow it back to the source to see if we can eliminate the source,” Johnson said.
State and federal agents refer cases to the unit, but some of the criminal investigations also grow out of citizen complaints, Johnson said. Any civil, workplace issues related to immigration are handled by state labor officials.
The unit is also tasked with training other law officers throughout the state on how to handle immigration cases, Smith said.