COLUMBIA — In its first year, a special South Carolina law enforcement unit that investigates criminal cases against illegal immigrants has been successful, according to its commander.

The statewide team — the only one of its kind, according to its commander, Lt. Eddie Johnson — still faces challenges when it comes to ensuring the public understands exactly what it is and what it does.

“This is a learning process for all of us,” Johnson, an officer with the state’s Department of Public Safety, recently told The Associated Press. “There’s no lack of work that needs to be done out there, so the officers stay busy.”

Johnson, a veteran Highway Patrol trooper and former Sumter policeman, is commander of the Immigration Enforcement Unit, which was created as a result South Carolina’s tough new immigration law.

Signed into law in 2011 and modeled after a similar measure in Arizona, the law requires businesses to check the legal status of new employees through a federal system and allows officers to check someone’s immigration status if they’re pulled over for another reason.

Johnson said his six-member team fields tips from the public and is called in to investigate when someone thought to be in the U.S. illegally is accused of breaking state law in South Carolina — not just people whose sole alleged crime is being in U.S. illegally.

“If you are not involved in any criminal activity here in South Carolina, then you have no fear of the Immigration Enforcement Unit, because we’re never going to meet,” Johnson said.

It took time to train up the special unit’s officers, who work directly with federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and, when necessary, refer cases directly to them for deportation.

Other cases are referred to local solicitors for prosecution.

Any civil, workplace issues related to immigration are handled by state labor officials.

Since July, the team has opened 43 cases, 17 of which have resulted in arrests.

A handful of others were dismissed — and sent to ICE for deportation. A few have been cleared entirely.

Johnson was hired to start assembling his team in December 2011, as a lawsuit over the new measure wound its way through federal courts.

Earlier that year, the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to challenge the new law, arguing that it was unconstitutional.

After the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled on Arizona’s immigration law, tossing out provisions like making it a state crime not to carry immigration papers but keeping in place officers’ ability to check people’s status, a federal judge in South Carolina ruled that state’s paper check could go into effect.

South Carolina is currently challenging an injunction that still blocks other parts from going into effect.

To Johnson, his officers do much more than probe crimes potentially related to illegal immigration.

His team, he said, is out to help people, not just put them in jail.

“We are the Immigration Enforcement Unit, but we look after everybody,” Johnson said. “Even if somebody is here illegally, if they are victimized by someone, we’re going to follow up on that just like we would follow up on anything else.”