CHARLESTON, S.C. — An Illinois congressman on Wednesday urged federal officials to drop deportation proceedings against a South Carolina worker, and said such appeals represent a way for illegal immigrants to deal with the tough new South Carolina immigration law set to take effect Jan 1.
"We're here to show the people in the immigrant community of South Carolina that you can fight back," said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat who often speaks for the party on immigration issues.
Gutierrez appeared with Gabino Sanchez, a 27-year-old construction and landscaping worker from Ridgeland, S.C., during Sanchez' initial appearance at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Charleston.
Sanchez was arrested on a traffic violation, found not to have a driver's license and to be an illegal immigrant and reported to the federal agency. Gutierrez was there to argue that the deportation proceedings should be dropped under an agency policy that now provides for prosecutorial discretion in such cases.
Sanchez, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico 13 years ago, has a wife and two children who are U.S. citizens. He had never before been arrested.
The government needs to use its limited resources deporting illegal immigrants who are a threat to society, not people like Sanchez, the congressman said.
"The (Obama) administration has said their highest priorities are criminals, drug dealers and people who rape and pillage and are a threat to our society," the congressman said before the closed hearing. "Obviously Gabino is not a threat."
Following the 75-minute hearing, the lawmaker said Sanchez had been given a March court date in Charlotte, N.C. But he said his office would immediately petition to have the deportation case dropped based on prosecutorial discretion.
"I have learned a lot," Gutierrez said, adding that while his office has helped others with deportation problems, Wednesday was the first time he had attended a hearing. "I arrived here. I asked for something and they said this is how you get it."
While he was at the hearing, a group of about three dozen protesters picketed outside the building, chanting in Spanish slogans such as "Obama listen. The people are in a struggle."
Gutierrez and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, also an Illinois Democrat, have been aggressively seeking cases of people with no criminal records facing deportation instead of waiting for a planned review of 300,000 cases in immigration courts.
On Jan. 1, South Carolina's new immigration law, considered among the toughest in the country, takes effect. It will require all law enforcement officers to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. The call must follow an arrest or traffic stop for something else, and officers are barred from holding someone solely on their suspicion.
The federal government has gone to court to block the South Carolina law from taking effect.
Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said the governor doesn't support Gutierrez.
"As the daughter of immigrants who came to this country legally, Governor Haley understands that no American value is more sacred than the rule of law. That's what this is about - nothing more, nothing less," Godfrey said. "These folks are not here legally — our laws require that you be here legally."
Gutierrez expects a rash of new arrests when the South Carolina law takes effect. He said he was recently in Alabama, where a similar law requires police to detain people who can't prove they are in the country legally and prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving government services.
"What we are trying to establish a month before the (S.C.) law takes effect is that the immigrant community does have a way to defend itself," he said.
He said prosecutors must take into consideration in deportation proceedings such things as whether an immigrant arrived as a child, whether they have families and their ties to the community.
"The federal government is the only agency that can deport you," he added. "The state of South Carolina can't do it and the state of Alabama can't do it."