For years, the Charleston County jail held people who were not charged with breaking Palmetto State law, instead funneling undocumented immigrants detained across the Carolinas to federal court.
So when Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who took office in January, canceled her department’s agreement to house federal immigration detainees alongside local inmates, she hoped the move would be the first step in rebuilding ties with the county’s communities of undocumented individuals.
North Charleston activist Lydia Cotton remembers a wave of panic in the immigrant community when former Sheriff Al Cannon announced his namesake jail would begin housing those detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities in October 2016.
“People didn’t know what to expect. They were afraid just to leave their houses,” Cotton said. “And if you don’t have the confidence to go to work or drive your kids to school, how are you going to have a community? We had to do all our events online, to let people feel safe."
Cotton even noticed a shift for her documented colleagues. Residents worried that police would profile them for their ethnicity and people with undocumented relatives avoided calling 911 for fear that first responders would ask family members to show identification, she said.
And while people knew that the agreement changed police’s duties, they weren’t sure what that would look like for day-to-day life.
“The news covered it, but the news is in English,” said Carlos Hernandez of North Charleston. “And when you’re working from 7 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night, you just want to come home and eat dinner and spend time with your family, not watch news reports.”
Hernandez, 45, joined community members going door-to-door in Hispanic neighborhoods, telling whoever was home about details of the agreement. But even with his community contacts, he had questions.
“I didn’t know anyone who was taken, but we worried if anyone went to jail that ICE would be there to meet them,” Hernandez said. “Once a co-worker had an accident and we called the police — he didn’t do anything wrong, and when he gave officers his information it was fine, but it was very stressful.”
Maribel Acosta, executive director of Art Pot Multicultural Group in North Charleston, had mixed emotions when Graziano announced Jan. 5 she’d quit housing ICE detainees.
“There was joy but also nervousness,” Acosta said. “All the news was mouth to mouth, and it can get distorted that way. ... There’s still the risk that federal authorities can come arrest people.”
Cannon’s plan had set aside space for up to 250 ICE detainees at a time, for which the government would pay Charleston County $55 per person each day. Federal authorities brought detainees from around the Carolinas to Charleston before transferring them every few days to federal facilities in Georgia.
The agreement, part of the Section 287(g) program, allows ICE to train and deputize local law enforcement officers. If those officers encounter an undocumented immigrant in the course of their normal work, they’re then allowed to detain them on immigration charges — a power normally reserved for federal authorities.
“If they’re really dangerous, it’s very easy for an ICE agent to go get a federal warrant signed,” Graziano said. “So just go do your job and we’ll do ours.”
Graziano said, federal authorities had initially threatened to ramp up enforcement in the county, but don’t seem to have done so. It’s worth the risk, she said, because community feedback has been positive and residents can have more trust in local officers.
According to data that Syracuse University compiled from ICE records, the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center saw a spike in ICE detainees in the summer of 2008, then another in late 2010, when 185 detainees were recorded that September. Numbers steadily dropped until 2016, when an average of under 20 inmates per month grew to over 35.
ICE’s data cuts off in June 2020, at which point Graziano said the jail’s pandemic protocols led authorities to clear the building of as many people as possible.
“So, for us inside, it’s not a huge change,” Graziano told The Post and Courier. “This is about community trust.”
Cotton hopes so. But it will take more than a single policy change to build bridges with the county's diverse immigrant population, she said, and prove to Latinos that they'll be prioritized into the county's future.