Charleston’s new sheriff declared Tuesday she will pull the county out of a controversial immigration enforcement program, a major change aimed at rebuilding community trust and transforming policing at one of South Carolina’s largest law enforcement agencies.
Sheriff Kristin Graziano announced her plan to terminate the county’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Tuesday afternoon at El Pincho Taco, an authentic Mexican restaurant in downtown Charleston.
It was Graziano’s first full day on the job.
“We want people to be able to believe that they can turn to us, cooperate with us, when they’re a victim of a crime in our community. Our immigrant community currently does not have that trust in us, and that ends today with me,” Graziano said before signing a document notifying ICE of her intent to sever the county’s participation in the 287(g) program.
The 287(g) agreement allowed Charleston County detention officers to perform immigration enforcement duties inside the jail with supervision from ICE. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has participated in this voluntary program since 2009.
Graziano could not given an exact number when asked how many detainees have been sent into deportation proceedings as a result of Charleston County’s involvement in the 287(g) program, but she estimates about 2,500 families have been affected by it in the last three years.
Moving forward, the sheriff’s office will only work with ICE, Graziano said, if there is a signed warrant by a federal judge for an immigrant’s arrest. Graziano said the 16 Charleston County sheriff’s officers who were deputized by ICE will remain detention officers, but their roles will no longer include doing work for ICE, as well.
With Charleston County cutting ties with ICE, just three law enforcement agencies in South Carolina now have 287(g) agreements. Those agencies are the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, Horry County Sheriff’s Office and York County Sheriff’s Office.
“Our job as deputies is to serve and protect all residents in Charleston County, and to be good stewards of taxpayer money. We are not to be used as an extension of the federal government and federal immigration policy,” Graziano said, reading from prepared remarks.
‘They were targeted’
Speaking with The State newspaper after signing the document to rescind Charleston’s involvement in the 287(g) program, Graziano said she saw the program as “legal racial profiling.”
“This is no different to me than the slave patrols that happened in Charleston,” Graziano said, noting the policing practice that began in South Carolina. It was designed to uphold white supremacy by surveilling, capturing, assaulting and killing Black people.
Deputizing local law officials to enforce federal immigration laws today, Graziano said, is no different.
“They were targeted because of the color of their skin. This is no different now. It’s just now, it’s not with Black people. It’s with the Latinx community,” Graziano said, adding that the decision to end the agreement was an easy one to make.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined the jail’s participation in the program, a jail population study by the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council shows the number of detained immigrants and the length of their stays has, on average, been steadily rising since 2014.
In 2014, the average length of stay was 18 days for ICE detainees. By 2015, it had climbed to 25 days, then 30 in 2016. Though the number of days dipped to 25 in 2017, the number would climb to 39 in both 2018 and 2019.
Graziano said federal funding covers about 40% of the costs associated with housing ICE detainees, which amounts to about $55 a day, per person. Graziano said Charleston County taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab, shelling out about $4 million each year to cover the costs.
Graziano said she has not decided how she will reallocate those funds.
A promise kept
The question as to whether law enforcement should be involved with federal immigration enforcement was a key issue in the 2020 Charleston County sheriff’s race, in which Graziano faced longtime incumbent Republican Al Cannon.
Cannon was a supporter of the program. Graziano was not.
Graziano defeated Cannon in November, when she received 51.6% of the vote.
During her campaign, Graziano promised to end Charleston County’s participation in the federal immigration enforcement program within her first 100 days in office. In fact, she moved to end that relationship on her first full day.
Graziano said it was important to end the agreement as soon as possible because it sends a message to the greater Charleston community about how she wants law enforcement to serve and protect all members of the community.
Frank Knaack, the executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomed the move by Graziano.
“The goal of our public safety system is to ensure the safety and well being of all and the 287(g) program fails that basic test. Charleston County must focus its resources on the needs outlined by the community and Charleston County voters made clear that it is time to end its 287(g) agreement,” Knaack said in a written statement.
The South Carolina Republican Party, however, questioned Graziano’s move to end the longstanding agreement with ICE.
“The Left will do whatever it takes to advance their radical agenda,” the state GOP wrote in a tweet posted on Tuesday afternoon that took aim at both Graziano and the ACLU of SC’s six-figure spending in the Charleston County Sheriff’s race.
Though Graziano was not sheriff when Charleston entered the agreement with ICE, Graziano personally apologized for the damage it has caused.
“This is like the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office being complicit in racial profiling of the Latinx community, and I am sorry that this has happened to that community,” Graziano said of the county’s 12-year involvement in the 287(g) program.
Standing nearby was immigration attorney Nina Cano Richards, who nodded as Graziano spoke.
Richards, an immigration attorney and a member of the Charleston Immigrant Coalition, said she has fielded calls from hundreds of immigrants asking if it’s safe to call the police, even when they are in the midst of a domestic violence incident or have just been a victim of an armed assault.
Immigrants are reluctant to call for help, Richards said, because they fear contacting the police could also result in expediting their deportation.
According to the latest annual report from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, federal immigration officials deported about 14,500 migrant family members nationwide in fiscal year 2020.
But it isn’t just the immigrants themselves who are impacted, Richards said.
“I have interviewed U.S. citizen children who have medically diagnosable PTSD as a result of witnessing their parents arrested by ICE. I have interviewed kids who are scared of their local (school) resource officers and are afraid to talk to them, thinking it will get their parents in trouble,” Richards said.
“Victims of crime should not have to suffer in silence,” she concluded.
An unknown ripple effect
Graziano is not the first sheriff to rescind her agency’s agreement with ICE. In recent years, a growing number of sheriffs, particularly in the South, have been reevaluating their agreements with the federal agency. As recently as last week, a newly elected sheriff in Georgia announced his plans to end Gwinett County’s participation in the 287(g) program.
Graziano said she met with ICE officials in late December to inform them of her decision to rescind the agreement. When they met at her office on Dec. 22, Graziano said federal officials responded with threats of increased immigration enforcement in Charleston County.
“In my conversations with other sheriffs across the country who have done this, they said this is what to expect. ... They’re going to threaten you,” Graziano said. “It took six minutes. It was a very short meeting.”
Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, said Graziano’s decision to withdraw from the agreement could create a ripple effect in other parts of the state.
While it might prompt other sheriffs to follow Charleston’s lead, Stoughton said it could also result in other agencies pursuing 287(g) agreements for the first time.
“Sheriffs run their own little fiefdoms,” Stoughton said.
Stoughton said he will be watching to see how — or if — other agencies respond to Charleston’s move.