Gabino Sanchez is the new face of South Carolina's illegal immigration debate.

The 27-year-old from Ridgeland is the so-called sympathetic illegal immigrant that many don't want deported.

He moved from Mexico to the United States at age 14, and although not a citizen, he has two children who are. He has worked hard in the construction industry and stayed out of trouble.

With the state's tough new immigration law set to take effect next month, a Chicago congressman visited Charleston on Wednesday to try to help Sanchez and highlight one way the state's Hispanic community can fight back.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., met privately with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to urge them to drop deportation proceedings against Sanchez and at least one other South Carolina man.

Gutierrez said his visit marked the first time he has made a special trip in a deportation case, and about three dozen Hispanic protesters chanted on the sidewalk outside ICE's office at 170 Meeting St. as the congressman and Sanchez went inside.

Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Immigration Task Force, Gutierrez said when South Carolina's new law takes effect Jan. 1, many more will face these sorts of proceedings.

"You're going to fill your jails with plenty of Gabinos," he said. "What we are trying to establish a month before the law takes effect is that the immigrant community does have a way to defend itself."

The law would require officers making a traffic stop or an arrest to alert federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. No one could be held solely on an officer's suspicion.

Opponents say it would encourage racial profiling, but the law's supporters, including its author, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said it's necessary because the federal government has fallen down on the job.

Asked about Sanchez, Grooms said, "Of course, I have sympathy for him, but a law was broken and if there's a problem with the law, then the law should be changed. If you begin picking and choosing which laws to enforce, then you end up with a lawless society and a culture of corruption begins."

Grooms said the state is simply trying to force the federal government to address the problem -- and to minimize its exposure to the problem in the meantime. "I think there will be mass self-deportation, and South Carolina will be known to those who are coming into this country illegally as a place they should not go," he said.

Gutierrez also assisted Roger Rablero Martinez of Ladson, who was stopped for speeding in Mount Pleasant and then detained when the officer learned he did not have a driver's license.

Both men were allowed to leave ICE's office Wednesday. Sanchez may remain free and faces a March 13 court date in Charlotte, while Martinez has a Jan. 10 court date.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman declined comment on the cases, citing privacy rules.

Gutierrez said pushing to have Sanchez's case closed "shows people how to fight on other cases in South Carolina and nationally where deporting a father and working man is not in the best interest of our country."

He added: "Cases like this show whether the Obama administration is serious about using deportation as a tool to remove serious criminals and not as a tool to split up American families."

Afterward, Sanchez called Gutierrez "a good man," adding, "I'm feeling good now."

Martinez said he was kept in the Charleston County jail for six days before posting $2,500 bail. He said Mount Pleasant police pulled him over for speeding while he was on his way to work there.

Gutierrez said he now will work to urge the federal government to drop both deportation proceedings since both men have been law-abiding and arrived in the country when they were teenagers.

He also encouraged Martinez to get his high school equivalency diploma. "Keep it on the straight and narrow," Gutierrez told him. "Make us all proud."

The cases have rallied the local and national Hispanic advocates who held a vigil in Washington Square Park before moving their protest up Meeting Street.

"Obama! Listen! We're here in the struggle," they chanted in Spanish.

The federal government is trying to target criminal aliens and those who pose a safety threat, beginning with a pilot program next week, said Vincent Picard, a spokesman for ICE's Southern region in Atlanta.

"The administration is considering, on a case-by-case basis, whether to pursue certain cases that fall outside these priorities," he said, "as pursuit of such cases diverts resources from our enforcement priorities and strains the limited resources of immigration courts."

Meanwhile, it's unclear if South Carolina's law will take effect in January: The U.S. Justice Department has filed a legal challenge, much like it did to a similar law in Arizona.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel is scheduled to hold an injunction hearing in Charleston on Dec. 19.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

U.S. Rep. Luiz Gutierrez said federal prosecutors should consider the following as they deal with deportation proceedings: