COLUMBIA - Rumors of undocumented immigrants secretly being transported to South Carolina have triggered a series of protests that will take place this weekend statewide.
Federal and state officials say there is no indication that undocumented immigrants are being flown or transported by bus to the Palmetto State, in the wake of the immigration crisis on the nation's southern border.
But one of the protests being assembled in Greenville for Saturday will take place at the location where it is believed undocumented men are being dropped off, said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, a national organization based in North Carolina.
"We're hearing that this is a problem in Greenville, South Carolina, and that we know that the invasion buses and planes are rolling all across the country right now," Gheen said. "Obama is transporting tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to the interior of the United States where he knows that their chances of ever being deported or processed are less than 5 percent, if that."
State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Thom Berry said the agency works in support of local law enforcement and suggested federal authorities would have more information on immigration. Greenville County sheriff's spokesman Deputy Drew Pinciaro said the department has not received any reports of arriving undocumented immigrants. A spokesman for the Governor's Office was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
"ICE has not received any transfers of migrant families or unaccompanied children in the state of South Carolina, nor is the agency aware of any future plans to do so," said Vincent Picard, spokesman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. "ICE's Atlanta Field Office, which oversees agency operations in Georgia and the Carolinas, maintains detention centers only for single adults. All such centers are located in Georgia; there are no ICE detention facilities in South Carolina."
Unaccompanied children from Central America have been arriving at the border by the thousands, with 90,000 expected by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. They flee violence but also are drawn by rumors that once here, they can stay.
President Barack Obama has requested $3.7 billion to help address the situation at the border. Republicans have been pushing to significantly pare down that request. Meanwhile, as shelters at border cities fill up, children reportedly have been taken to several non-border states, including Massachusetts, Florida and Virginia, to the surprise of local residents.
Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency is identifying facilities in states that have offered to help with temporary shelter.
"While only a few facilities will ultimately be selected, a wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children," Wolfe said. "Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options."
Gheen warned Obama's "federal smuggling operation" is being conducted in secret and that it's no surprise law enforcement officials in South Carolina are unaware of any arrivals. That's why the protests will take place in Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Myrtle Beach and Greenville this weekend, he said. The protests will be held with concurrent demonstrations nationwide.
But Laura Cahue, of the S.C. Immigration Coalition, said the protests are an attempt to politicize immigration and to express "all this xenophobic sentiment." She said there is no evidence of children or adults being transported to South Carolina.
"Our primary concern, as Americans, should be to keep these children safe and minimize any further traumatic experiences," Cahue said. "Moving these children to a safe location until the system can provide them with due process is the right thing to do, and the American thing to do."
South Carolina passed one of the most stringent immigration laws in the nation in 2008. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued South Carolina after the General Assembly approved the sweeping legislation, which was modeled after similar measures in Arizona. The lawsuit contended that parts of the South Carolina law, such as a provision allowing police to check people's immigration status, were unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ultimately said the state's status check provision could take effect but blocked most other parts of the law. Last week, Gergel ordered the state to pay $98,000 in attorneys' fees to groups including the ACLU.
A study published in 2011 said that South Carolina had an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 undocumented immigrants, which amounted to less than 1.6 percent of the state's population, according to a project by the Pew Research Center. Of that number, 60 percent to 76 percent were Mexican.
Cahue said the surge of Hispanics in South Carolina in recent years is the result of the construction and housing boom, made affordable through the inexpensive labor of undocumented workers. When the market crashed, she said, those who once turned a blind eye are now demanding Hispanics return home.
"This problem was created by us in some form or manner," Cahue said. "They have their children here, with no ill intention to anger anybody. This is why we need to reform our immigration system and why we need to deal with this problem."
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.
People protesting the housing of detained immigrant children at Wolverine Center in Vassar, Mich., walk Monday from Vassar City Hall to the facility. The crisis on the nationís southern border has sparked protests across the country, including in South Carolina.×
Detained children sleep last month in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.×