New screening policy at Horry County jail seeks to identify this group

The J.Reuben Long Detention Center where inmates accused of crimes are housed and guarded by Horry County Sheriff's deputies.
The J.Reuben Long Detention Center where inmates accused of crimes are housed and guarded by Horry County Sheriff's deputies. jlee@thesunnews.com

Starting in early summer, staff at the J. Reuben Detention Center will identify foreign-born suspects in lockup and flag them for possible deportation.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson stressed the change for his department will only apply to people in jail and the department will not be in communities searching for foreign-born individuals.

Deputies, he said, were "not going out looking for a soul," but instead would check immigration status in the county jail.

The program is part of a federal initiative through the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency called 287(g). Thompson and Chief Deputy Tom Fox recently addressed the new policy and ongoing training efforts so the sheriff's department can partner with federal agents. One jail officer completed the training and three more are scheduled for the course.

The four officers will then work to identify when a foreign-born suspect comes through the jail through interviews, evidence gathered or real-time fingerprint scans.

Once those people are identified, ICE agents will determine whether to place an immigration hold on the individual. J. Reuben staff will not be making that decision.

Fox estimated that at any point 25 to 30 of the jail's approximate 800 inmates are foreign born.

Thompson said the new program applies to all foreign-born inmates, and they aren't just targeting one particular region.

Once a hold, called a "detainer," is placed on an individual it can prevent them from leaving jail when released. Federal officials have 48 hours after someone is set for release to take custody of the suspect. Federal officials could also decide to immediately take custody, even if the person is in the middle of the criminal justice process.

Typically, ICE officials allow the criminal justice system to conclude. A detainer can remain with a person even if they are serving years in prison.

The screening will only be for individual who are arrested. Thompson said he didn't want to be flippant about the situation, but the easiest away to avoid screening is to avoid lockup. "If there an issue, don't go to jail," Thompson said.

Horry County initially applied for the program a decade ago. But, the initiative stalled under the Obama administration, officials said. In 2016, ICE leaders asked Horry County if it was still interested in the program and last year the Sheriff's Department signed a memorandum of understanding with ICE.

The County joins 75 other policy agencies in 20 states in the initiative.

Officials from ICE gave a statement on the program, noting, “The partnerships with local law enforcement are invaluable force multipliers for ICE in the place we can be most effective in the fight to enhance public safety - local jails. The goal of this program is to enhance public safety by identifying aliens, lodging immigration detainers, and initiating removal proceedings by issuing charging documents on potentially deportable criminal aliens booked into the jail facility.”

Fox said there are a couple of reasons behind the county's interest in the program. First, if the suspect isn't in the country to start, they can't commit crimes. The initiative is also part of the federal Secure Communities initiative that restarted in 2017. That program seeks to remove illegal aliens who committed crimes. The program operated from 2008 to 2014 and resulted in more than 360,000 criminals being removed from the country, according to ICE.

"They are here illegally, which is a crime," Thompson said.