June 20, 2014

For Lexington County Hispanics, greater distrust of deputies follows corruption charges

Hispanic residents and advocates speak about a distrust of law enforcement in the wake of the recent allegations against suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts for harboring illegal immigrants.

The Hispanic community throughout Lexington County comes from a variety of backgrounds. But the diverse and growing population holds one thing in common: a fear of law enforcement.

And with the news that James Metts has been indicted by federal agents and suspended as sheriff for helping a friend harbor illegal immigrants, some say that existing fear has been made worse.

From restaurants to tiendas, many Hispanic residents wanted to remain anonymous, or declined to comment, when asked about how they feel toward law enforcement.

A woman who wanted to remain anonymous and who prepares taxes for the Hispanic community said the general feeling Hispanic people have towards police is “scared.”

Jose De La Cruz of Columbia said it is hard for the Hispanic community to trust political leaders if there is nobody to hold them accountable.

“We fear criminals, but we fear the police just as much,” De La Cruz said. “The Hispanic community, we are used to corruption. It is hard for us to truly trust politicians as well as police officers.”

Metts was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday for accepting bribes to keep undocumented immigrants out of jail so that they could keep working in the restaurant business. Greg Leon, the owner of some area San Jose Mexican restaurants, also was indicted for bribing Metts.

Julie Smithwick, executive director of PASOs, a Latino-based community outreach program, said that there are good officers who want to build a relationship with the community, but the sheriff seeming to be one way and acting another impacts that relationship.

Smithwick said that intensifies a gap between Hispanic people and law enforcement, causing them to not reach out to report crime.

“There is already tension and distrust around the state, but especially in counties that chose to enact the 287(g) legislation that was punitive to immigrants,” Smithwick said.

The 287(g) legislation allowed for state and local law enforcement entities to partner with ICE and gave them authority for immigration enforcement within an department’s jurisdiction.

Three counties in South Carolina enacted 287(g): the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department, York County Sheriff’s Department and the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.

Lexington is “one of the first counties to have the ICE program, and it makes people scared to come forward,” Smithwick said.

Blanca Aguirre, a waitress at La Fiesta Mexican restaurant, said that she was born in the United States and isn’t afraid of the police. But she can understand why others are.

“Because of all the deportations,” Aguirre said. “There is a lot of people that I know that are Hispanic that don’t go to Lexington because ICE is there.”

Gregory Torrales, president of the S.C. Hispanic Leadership Council, said the alleged corruption involving Metts is due to the lack of immigration reform.

“If they pass immigration reform, (people) are no longer undocumented, they can get work visas. If they have a work visa, it takes away from any ability from an individual to use them as tokens,” Torrales said. “Juan the restaurant worker wants the same thing as Joe the plumber.”

Tammy Besherse, an attorney with S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, agreed. “Until we can get comprehensive immigration reform, (what Metts is accused of) could happen on a number of different levels by a number of different actors,” Besherse said.

Smithwick said other law-enforcement agencies in the state have had successful outreach to the communities. Like Lexington, Richland County has experienced an influx of Hispanics in recent years. Smithwick said law enforcement has recognized that.

“The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has gone above and beyond to make Hispanic communities feel safe by having bilingual officers and a anonymous Spanish tip line,” Smithwick said.

Even though the Lexington department is facing tough times, there still may be a way to redeem its relationship with the Hispanic community. De La Cruz said the allegations of Metts’ corruption are a serious black eye, but he said that with new Sheriff Lewis McCarty at the helm and cleaning out the top command, that’s a step forward.

“I just hope that we don’t lose sight of why they are there and (they) continue to move forward,” De La Cruz said.

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