South Carolina has become the fifth and latest state poised to enact a draconian anti-immigration law, after Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed SB 20 last week.
Opponents say the measures key provisions sanction discriminatory and unconstitutional practices by police officers and employers by inviting racial profiling of Latinos and others based on how they look or talk. Under this extreme law, scheduled to take effect January 1, police are required to demand "papers" from people they stop whom they suspect are not authorized to be in the U.S., critics say. The law requires employers to check the immigration status of new hires using the error-plagued federal E-Verify database.
A coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups say they plan to challenge the law.
"It is unfortunate that South Carolina lawmakers have pulled us backward onto a path that erodes the civil liberties of everyone in our communities," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina in a press release. "This law undermines the efforts made to overcome our state's shameful history of discrimination, inviting racial profiling of anyone who looks or sounds 'foreign.' We stand committed to making sure that this unconstitutional and discriminatory law never goes into effect."
Critics add the new law mimics Arizona's notorious SB 1070, which was signed into law last year. South Carolina's law says if a law enforcement officer stops, detains, arrests, or investigates someone for a criminal offense and develops a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is not in the country legally, the officer must ask for proof of citizenship in the form of identification or documentation.
Opponents note South Carolina and states that have approved similar laws are in a race to the bottom and share a shameful throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era. They charge that the law will sacrifice citizens' safety, cost the state an untold amount in taxpayer dollars and perpetuate bigotry.
"Like Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah, South Carolina has now passed an unconstitutional law that betrays our American values," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. She adds Gov. Haley has joined others on the wrong side of history.
South Carolina law enforcement experts argue that given the state's budget crisis and shortage of law enforcement agents, the state simply cannot afford to divert scarce police resources away from fighting crime.
The new measure creates a $1.3 million Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit, although opponents say it would cost the state close to $84 million to implement the law.
Activists say anti-immigrant laws sweeping the nation share a common strategy: to make it impossible for people without papers to live without fear. They give new powers to local police untrained in immigration law, increase the danger of unreasonable searches, and authorize false arrests.
Immigrant rights supporters argue the country is suffering due to Congress's inaction on immigration reform, which is allowing states to run amok with their own destructive ideas. And the damage from such laws to the country and its citizens is enormous, they note. Although President Obama and the Department of Justice is suing Arizona's law, more needs to be done and the administration must fight harder, they say.
Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, is South Carolina's first non-white and first female governor but is known for having a hard-line stance on immigration. Her views are ultra-conservative and she is a tea party favorite.
During a news conference, GOP lawmakers in South Carolina vilified undocumented immigrants. "They cling together in illegal communities and bring with them drugs, prostitution, violent crimes, and gang activity," said State Sen. Larry Grooms.
Meanwhile growing public opposition and the concern of associated costs from the business community, law enforcement officials, and civil rights, faith, labor and social justice organizations have helped defeat key provisions of anti-immigrant laws across the nation. It's likely that South Carolina's new law will meet the same fate.
South Carolina's newly signed immigration bill comes amid a series of injunctions against similar laws in Georgia, Utah, and Indiana by federal judges, blocking key portions from implementation. Civil rights groups are also filing suit against Alabama's extreme anti-immigrant bill.
Photo: At a 2008 immigration reform rally in the State House lobby in Columbia, SC. Erik Campos/AP