Crime & Courts

Lexington Sheriff cranks back up ICE immigration program. Critics say it’s a danger

Criminal and non-criminal immigrants are being targeted by ICE agents

Last year arrests of undocumented but "non-criminal aliens” more than doubled from the previous year. A recent study shows an overall decline in the arrests and deportation of “non-criminal aliens," but are slightly up under President Trump.
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Last year arrests of undocumented but "non-criminal aliens” more than doubled from the previous year. A recent study shows an overall decline in the arrests and deportation of “non-criminal aliens," but are slightly up under President Trump.

Recently, Ivan Segura got a phone call from a Lexington resident.

The man was having an issue with a neighbor, and he thought police should be involved, he told Segura. But the caller was Latino, and he didn’t want to call police, Segura said.

“He was very afraid that something was going to happen to him or that, because he was Latino, they would assume he’s undocumented or shouldn’t be complaining,” Segura said.

Segura is an immigrant community organizer in the Midlands. He said he regularly gets calls from Lexington’s immigrant residents who don’t want to call the sheriff’s department though they’re having an issue that should involve police.

“That’s what’s happened in Lexington after all these years of using these laws. People have lost their trust,” Segura said.

“These laws” refers to a program called 287(g).

The 287(g) program is an initiative by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that allows local authorities to screen people who are arrested and detained in the local jail to determine if the suspect is an undocumented immigrant. If the person who’s arrested is found to be undocumented, they’re turned over to ICE.

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department will complete its first full year of the 287(g) program at the end of 2018. So far this year, the program screened 158 immigrants, resulting in 84 being deported. In 2017, 81 people were screened and 22 removed. To Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon, that’s progress.

Koon and ICE defend the program as an effective tool for stopping repeat offenders from victimizing more people.

“If you’re sitting down with a crime victim, and the person that caused that crime to happened is not supposed to be in this country, that specific crime would not have happened,” Koon said at a recent community meeting about 287(g). “That’s what I hung my hat on when I made this decision to crank this program back up.”

Critics, like Segura, say the program makes immigrant communities less safe by perpetuating the fear that calling police could land a victim or their family members in ICE’s books.

“(Immigrants) will hear one story and then hear another one, then slowly and surely they start to believe,” Segura said.

What people in the immigrant community start to believe is that you have to be extremely careful what Lexington deputy you can trust, Segura said.

A year into the revamped program, little seems to have changed in the perception of the program for the immigrant community despite the sheriff’s department’s and ICE’s efforts to explain 287(g) as a means to reduce crime within Hispanic neighborhoods and throughout Lexington County.

Politics or public safety

At a Nov. 29 community meeting in Lexington, ICE representatives along with Sheriff Koon laid out what 287(g) is and what it’s done.

One success, they said, was the 2018 case of a man arrested for soliciting a minor and detained in the Lexington County Detention Center. The person had several prior arrests for domestic violence, DUI and other charges. The 287(g) screening process revealed that he was unlawfully in the United States, and he was handed over to ICE.

Koon brought 287(g) back to his department in April 2017. Only people arrested and booked in the Lexington County Detention Center are screened under the program. Deputies are not empowered to arrest someone based on immigration status, Koon and ICE officials emphasized.

When a person is booked at the Lexington jail, that person’s country of birth is determined. If they’re foreign born, the 287(g) screening begins with a trained officer, according to Major Kevin Jones, LCSD’s detention center commander.

ICE is automatically informed of foreign born people booked into the jail. The fingerprints of the person being screened are entered into an ICE database, which is the typical manner to determine if the suspect is wanted by ICE. If they’re undocumented or wanted by ICE, ICE requests a detainer be put on the person.

All this action can only happen inside the detention center.

In South Carolina, three other counties participate in the 287(g) program: York, Horry and Charleston counties.

In the months prior to Koon’s request for 287(g) to be reinstated, ICE was already looking at the Lexington detention center’s foreign born list, the sheriff said.

“We’re just simply going to force multiply by one officer right now to do what (ICE is) already doing right now,” Koon said. “They do that now. They go in and look at foreign born in a facility.”

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon when he took the oath of office in 2015. Tim Dominick The State

To Koon, the case of the man arrested for soliciting a minor is a perfect example of the public safety benefit of having 287(g). Now, the offender is out of Lexington.

Brett Bursey of the Progressive Network disagrees. “Excuse me sheriff, you’re wrong,” he said.

To have the 287(g) program “is not a safety decision, not a law enforcement decision. It’s a partisan political decision,” Bursey said.

Bursey pointed to PEW research data that shows ICE’s arrest of noncriminal immigrants grew at a much faster rate between 2016 and 2017 than the arrest of immigrants who committed crimes in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

There’s also a financial element that critics like Bursey are wary of.

The sheriff’s department receives about $61 a day to detain someone for 48 hours under 287(g). Also, Koon expects to receive $56,000 from ICE for the detention center to be a holding facility for the federal agency, although the detention center receives that money whether Lexington County is in the 287(g) program or not.

The program shows little in the way of effectiveness, Bursey believes, other than to show political persuasion. The ICE initiative also makes local authorities do a federal agency’s job, he said. Immigration issues should stay in federal hands, Bursey said.

“It’s serving no purpose other than making our public less safe and police more prone to racial profiling and using our tax money for bogus reasons,” Bursey said. “If people are law abiding citizens and something bad happens to them and they’re afraid to go to the cops, that’s not good community police work.”

Julie Smithwick said she knows many cases that show how 287(g) makes life less safe for immigrants. She remembers the cuts and bruises of one woman.


Smithwick is director of South Carolina PASOs, an organization that provides services for Latino communities. One Hispanic immigrant woman in Lexington stands out to her. The woman was being abused by her husband.

“She would send us pictures of the bruises and scratches,” Smithwick recalled.

Smithwick and other PASOs members encouraged the woman to call police and go to a domestic violence shelter. But the immigrant woman said she couldn’t, fearful that if police were involved they would actually arrest her for being undocumented and that she would be deported and unable to take care of her children. She feared the children would fall into the hands of her abusive husband, Smithwick said.

Immigrants know about 287(g), Smithwick said, and it feeds into fears like that of the abused woman.

“The number of people who are alienated and don’t come forward is so much greater than the number of hardened criminals they say they’re protecting them from,” Smithwick said.

Not only does 287(g) decrease trust of law enforcement, it also gives cover to criminals, Smithwick asserts. Criminals also know 287(g) stops people from coming forward.

“Hardened criminals are protected,” Smithwick said. “They’re sitting back there laughing because no one’s going to out them.”

A Lexington County Detention Center officer checks scans of fingerprints in 2011 Lexington County Detention Center checks the immigration status of everyone booked at the jail. Kim Kim Foster-Tobin The State

Koon and his department have tried to get the message out that no matter an immigrant’s status, they should have no fear of calling deputies.

“If somebody has not committed a crime, there is no fear (of deportation),” Koon said. “We’re not out on the street doing any round-ups based on immigration status. We’re policing like we always have and always will, and we’re going to treat all victims fair and work with them.”

Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesperson, emphasized that Koon’s deputies have no authority to arrest an immigrant for their status.

The 287(g) program should actually cause less fear of ICE for immigrants, according to Cox. That’s because the program means ICE focuses on Lexington’s detention center and is less likely to have to go into immigrant communities, where, per its marching order from President Trump, ICE will no longer turn a blind eye to other undocumented people they encounter when making arrests.

If the focus wasn’t on the detention center, “ICE would have to go into the community or a place of work to make the arrest,” Cox said. “There would be more visible ICE presence in the community.”

“For persons who are advocating that they want to focus on criminal offenders and minimizing ICE presence in the community, that’s exactly what 287(g) does,” Cox said.

Koon said he understands immigrants come to the United States with fear of law enforcement. Immigrants come with distrust from corrupt and ineffective police in their countries, the sheriff believes. That’s long been talked about among police leaders, according to Koon.

The 287(g) program should have nothing to do with that distrust, he said.

“That’s always been a focus on law enforcement, that you have to ramp up those (immigrant community) relationships,” Koon said.

But immigrants in Lexington also have a history with 287(g).

Years past, present and future

In 2014, former Lexington Sheriff James Metts was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges that alleged he took money from a Mexican restaurant owner, coordinated through a former Lexington town councilman after Metts locked up undocumented immigrants.

ICE immediately suspended the program in Lexington after the Metts indictment, and Metts pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harboring illegal immigrants, which he held inside the Lexington jail.

The immigrant community hasn’t forgotten Metts, according to Segura.

“This has been going on for a while,” Segura said of the erosion of trust from 287(g).

Koon said the past is behind his department.

“The cloud’s gone,” Koon said. “We got a professional agency that’s internationally accredited.”

David Nieves, Lexington County Sheriff’s Departments new bilingual victims’ advocate Courtesy Lexington County Sheriff's Department

Part of removing the cloud was hiring a bilingual Hispanic victims’ advocate at the sheriff’s department, a recent move Koon said is part of a concerted effort to build relations in the Latino community.

Segura and Smithwick praised the hiring, though Segura said it’s too early to see if the new officer will have any effect. Both believe more needs to be done in Lexington for the sheriff’s department to enact effective community policing. Koon said his department is doing more.

“That victim’s advocate was the cherry on top of the cake,” Koon said. “We do a lot and will continue to do a lot on community policing.”

While Koon said the Metts-era cloud is gone, Smithwick believes a reasserted 287(g) is a new cloud. You can’t have both immigrant community engagement and 287(g), she said.

“I hope that they continue to take proactive steps to build trust,” Smithwick said. “Unfortunately, people know 287(g), and what they relate to that term is that they don’t want (police) to appear. They’re not here to protect us.”

That’s a perception, whether true or not, Koon and his department may be fighting in the next year of the 287(g) program and possibly for every year the program stays in place. But it’s a fight he seems poised to continue.

“We’re looking forward,” Koon said. “I feel good about where we are and we’re moving in the right direction.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.