South Carolina’s immigrant activists are worried after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crackdown on sanctuary cities

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens to Howard Augusto Cotto Castaneda, Director General of the National Police during a visit to the National Police Headquarters in San Salvador, El Salvador, Friday, July 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After an announcement this week by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that amounts to a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, South Carolinians who work with the immigrant community are concerned.

Sessions’ order threatens to hold back federal grant money from local and state agencies that do not cooperate with immigration officials.

While no city in the Palmetto State is classified as a sanctuary city — no legal definition exists but they are usually regarded as municipalities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities — activists and others fear it will have a chilling effect on efforts to foster positive relationships between emerging communities and the government.

"It’s been really hard," said Evelyn Lugo, president and founder of the South Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Greenville. "We need to come to the table and try to fix this mess."

Lugo said that rhetoric from Sessions and the Trump administration as a whole continues to damage efforts to forge closer connections between the Hispanic community and the government.

"We need to be making friends instead of making enemies but there’s no compromise," she said. "It’s like talking to a wall."

Sessions’ directive governs law enforcement agencies’ eligibility for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program — which provides states, tribes and local governments with funding in areas like law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education.

Cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities will not be eligible for such grants, according to the order.

"As part of accomplishing the Department of Justice’s top priority of reducing violent crime, we must encourage these ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to change their policies and partner with federal law enforcement to remove criminals," according to Sessions’ statement Tuesday.

"From now on, the Department will only provide (Byrne) grants to cities and states that comply with federal law, allow federal immigration access to detention facilities, and provide 48 hours notice before they release an illegal alien wanted by federal authorities."

In the announcement, Sessions said that sanctuary policies make communities less safe by undermining laws and protecting those in the country illegally who have committed crimes.

Enforcing rules will help authorities combat MS-13 and other transnational gangs that commit violent crimes, he said.

During the latest grant cycle, South Carolina law enforcement agencies received $4.06 million in funding through the Byrne program, according to data provided by the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

But Sessions’ directive is unlikely to have any impact on South Carolina’s law enforcement agencies.

The Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston is under an annual contract with the federal government to temporarily house U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees from North Carolina and South Carolina.

As of Wednesday, there were 91 such detainees in the jail out of 1,211 inmates overall, said Maj. Eric Watson, a spokesman for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. The jail was certified as an ICE detention facility "a few years ago."

"As part of our agreement with ICE, we are required to maintain a certain standard, as well as pass a rigorous review and inspection process on an annual basis," Watson said. "To my knowledge, no city in Charleston County is identified as a sanctuary city, so the DOJ funding decision should not have an immediate impact on our agreement with ICE or our jail operations."

The Lexington and York County detention centers are also certified to temporarily hold ICE detainees, said Bryan D. Cox, a spokesman for the agency’s Southern Region. Individuals arrested by ICE are held for a few days at one of the three South Carolina facilities until they can be taken to one of three ICE detention centers in Georgia.

Lydia Cotton, an activist in the Charleston-area Hispanic community, said the residents she works with feel caught in the middle of a fight they do not have a say in.

"Politically, we don’t have the power," Cotton said. "I just hope that in the next election, we Latinos don’t fight against the government but start talking with them. I hope we can organize better without getting into insulting (the other side)."

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