South Carolina Immigration Law Faces Legal Challenge

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of immigrant rights groups filed a suit on Wednesday to block South Carolina's crackdown on unauthorized immigration, saying the law is unconstitutional and would encourage racial profiling.

The lawsuit may be a harbinger of things to come for the South Carolina law, which is similar in many ways to laws in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. The law, which is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, requires police officers to ask about immigration status during routine stops if they have "reasonable suspicion" the person in question could be undocumented.

In Alabama and Arizona, similar laws led to challenges from the Department of Justice. Most provisions of the Arizona law, S.B. 1070, were blocked on Jun. 28, 2010, one day before the law was set to go into effect. Attempts to block most of the H.B. 46 immigration enforcement law in Alabama before its implementation date were unsuccessful, but DOJ lawyers appealed to federal courts last week to prevent its enforcement.

Those two laws also faced a barrage of lawsuits from immigrant rights groups, including the coalition that is now suing South Carolina over its law.

The South Carolina law, S.B. 20, has not been challenged by the Department of Justice, although the agency is reviewing it to determine whether it would interfere with federal law enforcement efforts.

Meanwhile, rights groups are pushing for the law to be blocked before it can be implemented. The American Civil Liberties Union joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Law Center and other immigrant rights groups on the lawsuit.

"We continue to call on the federal government to challenge all of these extremely problematic laws as they have in Alabama and Arizona," said Andre Segura, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "South Carolina, if not blocked from going into effect, has the same potential for causing the serious harm we've seen occur in Alabama."

South Carolina had the fastest-growing immigrant population over the past decade, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Under the law, South Carolina employers will be required to use E-Verify, a federal program that checks employees and job applicants for legal status. If businesses knowingly employ undocumented immigrants, they could face losing their licenses. The law will also create a $1.3 million Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit to help local police better interact with federal immigration officials.

The law's proponents say the goal is to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state, and prevent more from coming in. But immigrant rights groups say it would likely have unintended effects, such as drawing police attention from more critical matters, encouraging racial profiling and hindering efforts at community policing.

In Alabama, a similar law has driven immigrants underground and out of the state, leaving jobs unfilled in construction and farm work.

"Some of the legislators stated that they believe that we needed this law because immigrants who are not here legally are taking jobs," said Tammy Besherse, staff attorney for South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, one of the groups that is suing the state. "It hasn't worked in Alabama. If they are really leaving, why are the farmers still not able to fill those jobs?"

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