The Sheriff Who Sold Amnesty

How did a tough-on-immigrants sheriff wind up convicted for conspiring to harbor illegal aliens? Jimmy Metts, the longest-serving sheriff in South Carolina, exploited the contradictions between anti-immigrant sentiment and the need for cheap, undocumented labor.

In 1970, three years before James “Jimmy” Metts became sheriff of Lexington County, there were exactly 107 Mexican-born people living in the entire state of South Carolina.

Forty years later, when Sheriff Metts stepped down in disgrace, that number was close to 75,000. During the first decade of the 21st century, South Carolina had the fastest-growing Hispanic population of any state in the country, reaching a total of more than 250,000 in 2013, most of them Mexican immigrants and their families.

Metts recognized that there were federal dollars and political points to be scored in dealing harshly with "illegals," as they were so often called in Lexington County. In 2010, he implemented a federal program that empowered his agency to begin deportations against undocumented immigrants it arrested. Close to a thousand people were deported as a result of the program.

Metts was the state’s longest-serving sheriff, and one of the longest-serving in the country. He ran unopposed in election after election. The Lexington County Council gave him carte blanche with the budget, and the law enforcement building complex bore his name. Metts seemed untouchable.

So it came as a surprise to many when this tough-on-immigrants sheriff was indicted after taking cash payments from a local business whose undocumented workers had been arrested — in exchange for not turning those immigrants over to the feds for deportation. In late December, Metts pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiring to harbor illegal aliens.

In many states, law enforcement has become the principal institution for reacting to the explosive growth of an immigrant population that had previously been virtually nonexistent. All the while, major industries have grown accustomed to undocumented labor. The voters in Lexington County wanted Metts to crack down on immigrants. The business owners responsible for the economic lifeblood of Lexington County wanted Metts to ease up on their undocumented workers.

It was a combination of circumstances that, as sheriff, Metts was perfectly positioned to exploit.

When Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, “You lie!” during a 2009 address by President Obama on health care reform, he was responding to the president’s assertion that undocumented immigrants would not be eligible for benefits under Obamacare. Wilson’s frustration with the president over immigration reflected that of many of the constituents in his congressional district, which includes his home base of Lexington, South Carolina.

By then, Sheriff Metts was an influential politician and lawman with a sterling reputation among Republicans in deeply conservative Lexington County.

"Jimmy Metts has always been recognized in our county as just a complete and total straight shooter," said Jahue Moore, an attorney in Lexington County and Joe Wilson’s former law partner. "He never did anything other than honest, honorable, first-class law enforcement."

Metts, now a barrel-chested man with wide, ruddy cheeks, was elected sheriff in 1973, when he was only 25 years old. For the next two decades, he set about modernizing and expanding the Sheriff's Department. (Through his attorney, Metts declined to comment for this story.)

"This was a backwater with a kind of Dukes of Hazzard feel to it when Jimmy took over back in the '70s," said Rich Bolen, former chair of the Lexington County Republican Party. "And it's a world-class law enforcement agency now. Probably the best sheriff's department in our state, in all due modesty."

He was the first sheriff in South Carolina to do a number of things that later became standard, like hiring women as deputies, instituting drug tests and psychological exams for new hires, and posting police officers in public schools. Lawyers and politicians in South Carolina see Metts as a pioneer in the national trend toward professionalizing local law enforcement.

In an article he wrote for The Futurist magazine in 1985, Metts accurately predicted that these developments would become commonplace, and even foresaw the change that would become his undoing: “Police officers of the future will have to deal with an increasingly diverse population, including more legal and illegal immigrants, and greater numbers of non-English-speaking citizens."

In the essay, Metts also indulged his obsession with technology, fantasizing about what a day in the life of a police officer might look like in 2001. “The ‘supercops’ of the future will be highly trained caretakers who may not carry guns,” Metts wrote. Instead of patrol cars, they will fly around in “space buckets” and “jet packs,” which will allow them “to soar above and around congestion or to hover a few feet above the scene of a fire, accident, or disaster.”

In reality, this obsession translated to continually buying newer and more sophisticated guns, cars, boats, and, when such things became possible, computers and DNA labs.

Eventually, the county council ceded oversight of his budget, choosing instead to give him a lump yearly sum he could spend as he pleased. Throughout his tenure as sheriff, Metts had the unwavering support of the voters and politicians of Lexington County, and could rely on a political climate that was consistently pro–law enforcement.

"Selling law and order in a place like Lexington County — that's like selling ice water in hell," said Duncan.

Very little changed in Lexington County during Metts’ first 20 years as sheriff. But in the mid-'90s, Southern states became the epicenter of a massive national shift in the way Mexican and Central American immigrants settled around the country. Rather than moving to existing enclaves in states like California and New York, immigrants started flowing to the South and Midwest, drawn by the low cost of living and booms in construction, agriculture, and meat processing.

Between 1990 and 2010, Lexington County’s population grew by 59%. The Latino population, meanwhile, grew by 1,015%.

In the years leading up to Joe Wilson's “You lie!” outburst, the rapidly growing Latino population in South Carolina had become impossible to avoid. Residents saw them picking collard greens as they drove by farm fields, or perching on the half-built roofs of the suburban subdivisions that kept cropping up along the highways. They saw them in Walmart and in hospital waiting rooms, and they saw their children in the schools alongside their own.

At the level of political rhetoric, the response was unambiguous. Bolen, the former chair of the county Republican Party, described the party's view as "your standard conservative position: They think illegal aliens should be rounded up and deported as they're captured, not treated as American citizens."

Nobody involved in politics, law, or immigration advocacy in Lexington County described Metts as ideologically anti-immigrant in the manner of Joe Arpaio, the infamous sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Instead, they say that Metts had a finger constantly on the political pulse of his jurisdiction, and that the unbreakable hold he had over his office was based, in part, on his ability to align himself with the elements of the national Republican platform that most resonated in his home turf.

So, in 2010, Metts entered into an agreement with the federal government under a program known as 287(g). The program empowered Metts’ department to interrogate people they arrested about their immigration status and place immigration detainers against them, making it a matter of minutes or hours before they were caught in the gears of the system that would eventually deport them.

The 287(g) program is very attractive to jurisdictions looking to crack down on illegal immigration. Metts' department regularly set up roadblocks in what it called high-crime areas. But Julie Smithwick, executive director of South Carolina PASOs, a public health program for immigrants, said she heard constant complaints that Metts' deputies were targeting immigrant neighborhoods and profiling Latino drivers.

Metts made a video explaining that he implemented the program after realizing that many of the people passing through his jail were foreign-born. “Once we got the program in place, we determined that a whole lot of people in our facility were in fact born in other countries and were here illegally. … The program’s been very successful for us,” Metts said in the video, which ends with the loud sound of a jail door slamming shut.

Lexington County's political establishment was enthusiastic about the program. Bill Banning, who was on the county council for nearly 20 years, said it amplified the effects of workplace raids carried out by the federal government nearby and around the same time. There was a large poultry processing plant in West Columbia, for example, run by a company that had another plant in Greenville, where more than 300 undocumented immigrants were deported in 2009.

"Between that company and Jimmy's program, a lot of those illegal immigrants just left," he said. "They scattered like rats. When you had shift change, you went over there and you saw nothing but Hispanic people coming and going. Now you don't see that. Now you have a lot of local people getting those jobs that these illegals were getting to begin with."

The idea of self-deportation — a policy of making life for undocumented immigrants difficult to the point that they return to their countries of origin — had grown popular in Republican politics. Dora Zavala, an immigrant from El Salvador and community organizer in Lexington County, said that many immigrants did leave the county after Metts implemented 287(g). However, she recalled that the large majority moved to other states, while only a small handful left the U.S.

The 287(g) program also meant that Metts could single-handedly decide whether or not an undocumented immigrant went into the system. It was this authority that Metts used to make money by not deporting certain workers.

In South Carolina, Metts was ahead of the curve on the question of using local police to enforce federal immigration laws. In 2011, the state passed a bill modeled on Arizona's notorious "show me your papers" law, compelling local police to demand proof of citizenship from anybody they suspected of being in the country unlawfully.

But certain provisions in the law betrayed the extent to which key industries in South Carolina had grown dependent on undocumented labor. Those who employed farmworkers and nannies, for example, were exempted from checking their workers’ immigration status in a federal database.

Businesses that could not count on these exemptions became frequent clients of local immigration attorneys. One such lawyer, Charles Phipps, said about a third of his calls came from business owners, most of them construction contractors, who'd had a worker land in Metts' jail.

"The irony is pretty deep," Phipps said. "This is a very Republican area, and Republicans who want to deport everybody are in office, and they're voted in and given money by these business owners. But when it comes to their specific employees who get arrested, they come to me and say, 'This person is different.'"

Banning, the former Lexington County Council member, said he never knowingly accepted contributions from businesses that employed undocumented people, and would expect the same from others on the council. “They shouldn’t be hiring illegal immigrants to work anyway,” Banning said.

In immigrant communities, the consequences of Metts' dragnet were harsh and unmistakable. In fiscal year 2010, which ended months after Metts established the program, 34 people were deported from Lexington County through 287(g), according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The next year, that number shot up to 480.

"I have a lot of friends who were deported, who left behind their families, their children, and their wives," said Zavala, the community organizer from El Salvador. "Seeing their children, seeing that they probably won't be able to see their fathers again — that was difficult."

For those who remained, Zavala said, there was mostly fear. Immigrants would beg for rides to work from acquaintances with legal status. If they couldn't help but drive, they would go straight to work and come straight home. Something as simple as going to the grocery store became fraught with panic.

Asked how many people she knew who had been deported or had seen their family members deported, Zavala let out a long breath. "It must have been at least 50," she said. "But those are just the ones I know about. There have been others. There have been many others."

Sometime in 2013, the FBI started to investigate Metts in connection with a video gambling ring, according to an attorney directly involved in the case who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity. A member of the Lexington town council named Danny Frazier had been secretly recorded speaking to someone claiming to want to open a parlor with illegal video poker machines. Frazier bragged about officials he had access to who could protect the operation, including the mayor of Columbia, two state senators, and Jimmy Metts.

When confronted with the evidence, Frazier offered the feds information about a bribery scheme he and Metts were involved in. Frazier was on the payroll of the Lexington County Sheriff's Department as a part-time "business liaison," a job that ostensibly had him relaying the concerns of small business owners to Metts. In reality, Frazier told the FBI, he had been acting as a go-between for a series of payments made to Metts by Gregory Leon, the owner of a local chain of Mexican restaurants. Frazier and Leon both face state charges and declined to comment through their attorneys.

Early in September 2011, one of Leon's workers was arrested in West Columbia, according to Metts' grand jury indictment. On Leon's behalf, Frazier called Metts to ask him not to put the worker through the system. Metts said it was too late. A deportation order was already in place. In the future, Leon needed to act faster.

In the ensuing months, Metts intervened in the arrests of three other immigrants who worked for Leon, these times successfully, in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money in cash.

Two lawyers with knowledge of a separate investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told BuzzFeed News that Leon’s restaurants may not have been the only business that entered into some kind of agreement with Metts regarding their workers.

Last June, Metts was indicted on 10 counts of bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy to interfere with government function, and conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. A month later, members of the Lexington County Council told The State, one of South Carolina’s biggest newspapers, that Metts had asked them for contributions to help pay for his legal fees. After months of negotiating with prosecutors, Metts pleaded guilty in December to the final count of his indictment: conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens.

"The funny thing is that the charge that stuck is basically what Obama did for 5 million illegals,” said Bolen, the former county Republican Party chair. “He made them not have to register and not have to be in the system as illegals, and he did it for three or four, and he got a felony conviction. But Obama is lauded as this great compassionate man of the people."

This is not a rare sentiment among Metts' erstwhile allies. "You don't have to bribe somebody to let a Mexican out of jail," said Jahue Moore, the Lexington County attorney and former law partner of Joe Wilson's. "They let Mexicans out of jail all over the place."

Seven years before Metts' indictment, the Lexington County Council had voted to name the buildings housing the county jail and the sheriff's department the Lexington County James R. Metts Law Enforcement Complex. The vote was split. Johnny Jeffcoat, a council member who voted for the naming, said the debate centered around the wisdom of honoring a living person who is still in office. "The largest obstacle in the way of them voting for it was, let's suppose Sheriff Metts gets in trouble," Jeffcoat said. "Then we're all going to be embarrassed. And unfortunately, they were right."

On Jan. 14, the council voted unanimously to remove Metts' name from the buildings. The same day, work crews pried Jimmy Metts’ name from the building facade, leaving a blank space in its stead.

"There won't be anybody else's name on there," Jeffcoat said. "I can pretty much assure you of that."

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