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As immigration debate boils, Charleston heats up as a 'robust' detention point

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Al Cannon Detention Center

Charleston County's Al Cannon Detention Center sees a steady stream of federal immigration detainees. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A recent influx of hundreds of asylum seekers is bringing money — and increased scrutiny — to Charleston County’s detention center, amid the country’s heightened immigration debate.

The county remains a willing partner to detain people, not just immigrants, on behalf of the federal government, and it expects to receive millions of dollars again this year for doing so.

While a steady stream of federal detainees to the Al Cannon Detention Center is not unusual, the sudden arrival of more than 400 asylum seekers since late December was. The move happened on short notice and without any official announcement.

It also caught the attention of immigration attorneys, locally and across the country, who stepped in to try to help the newly arrived detainees.

The asylum seekers came through legal entry points in Southern California and northern Mexico, said Damjan DeNoble, who co-founded Mi Maletín, a North Carolina-based group that represents immigrants. The organization has helped coordinate legal support, including interpreters and staff, for the recent Charleston detainees. 

That differentiates them from other immigrant detainees at the county jail who were taken into custody after illegally entering the United States, DeNoble said. 

The  jail in North Charleston has historically been used as a place to put people arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in South Carolina, said Bryan Cox, an agency spokesman. But it is now also housing people transferred from the country's Southwest border, he said.

The transfers come as federal officials continue to focus intently on people headed to the border. Immigration courts nationwide are overwhelmed. Bed space is scarce. Meanwhile, arrests are on the rise.

On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a dramatic increase in people detained at the border in February, when compared with the previous five years. Apprehensions in December and January were also upticks from previous years, the agency said.   

“Our strong suspicion is that Charleston is becoming a permanent, robust detention center for immigrants,” DeNoble said.

More holds, more revenue

Charleston County is not an unusual choice for holding immigrant detainees for the federal government. Several other local governments have similar agreements with ICE. 

Cox, the ICE spokesman, said the agency is temporarily moving detainees to inland areas, such as Charleston, to deal with the growing numbers at the border. County jails, such as the Cannon Detention Center, are handling the overflow.

Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, who previously oversaw jail operations, said ICE detainees typically don't stay for long. Most inmates face immigration proceedings and soon are sent to an immigration court hub like Atlanta. 

"They're the least problematic inmates at the jail," he said. 

Charleston County takes in significant money from holding federal detainees, which could provide an incentive for officials to continue, or try to increase, the flow of people held here.

In the county's current budget, officials expected an increase in funds for holding detainees for the federal government, due to a "renewed interest in detaining inmates as part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

During the 2017-18 fiscal year, ICE had fewer than 10 detainees at the jail per day on average. The agency pays Charleston County $55 per day for every person it houses.

Lucas said he sees housing federal inmates, from ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as a win for Charleston County's taxpayers. 

"It is a revenue stream," he said. "Anytime (we) can have a revenue stream, it improves the budgetary concerns of the county. There's not a downside to that except political things about the type of inmates we're holding." 

And it's also important for the Sheriff's Office to cooperate with fellow law enforcement, Lucas said. 

“Sheriff Cannon’s position on this is whether they pay or not, he will house them because that’s how he sees his job here,” he said.

Charleston County's current budget projects holding federal prisoners will bring in more than $3.5 million, which would cover more than one-third of its detention center operating expenses. That sum includes reimbursement from all federal prisoners housed there, not only ICE detainees.

It's also up about $1.1 million from the previous year, largely because of ICE-related reimbursements.

The recent large transfer of a large group of detainees is not unprecedented for the jail, located off Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. 

In 2016, more than 100 Haitians were temporarily held there after Hurricane Matthew caused infrastructure issues within Haiti. 

Not the unusual suspects

Meanwhile, these detainees are not only appearing in Charleston's detention center but also in its courts.

Two detainees sent here recently were Bangladeshi youths seeking asylum from political-related violence in their home country. Both had traveled for months through 10 different countries to arrive at the U.S. border.

Their country of origin was unusual — most arrested at the Southwest border are from Central America — but so is their situation. 

Both provided documents to the federal government saying they are under 18 after they were picked up by border officials near San Diego. But they've been detained as adults, according to lawsuits filed in federal court. 

Smugglers told the youths to say they were adults, the lawsuits say, and provided them with passports with fake birthdays. 

Immigrant minors are treated differently than adults in the federal immigration system. People under 18 are not supposed to be with unrelated adults for more than 24 hours. But government officials have held the two Bangladeshis in adult centers since Dec. 14. They were transferred to Charleston in January and were later moved to Georgia.

Lucas said the Sheriff's Office worked with ICE after they were informed the two Bangladeshi detainees may have been minors.

"We were extremely concerned when this allegation came out in the lawsuit," he said. "So was ICE. (They) went back and checked their records and assured us that both were, in fact, adults."  

Charleston attorney Brad Banias is representing the immigrants, who are not named in federal court records.

He was contacted by Mi Maletín after the recent surge, he said. Both of the Bangladeshi immigrants have family members in the United States that are trying to sponsor them, if they are ever released from custody. 

Without the recent attention, they might not have had any attorney representing them in their case. 

“Being transferred to Charleston put them in a market where they had access to counsel where they did not and will not in rural Georgia,” Banias said. “It’s no coincidence that ICE detention centers are primarily in rural areas without ready access to counsel."

ICE does not comment on specific cases due to federal privacy laws, Cox said.

DeNoble, the North Carolina-based attorney, said that Mi Maletín picked up 130 cases from the asylum seekers sent to Charleston and that the organization is at capacity. 

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter at @bystephenhobbs.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryYYee.

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