Immigration Law Hit with Legal Challenge

(Columbia, Oct 12, 2011) A coalition of immigrants and groups who work with them filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against South Carolina’s immigration law, saying it will encourage racial profiling and violate people’s constitutional rights.

The law, which is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, requires law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they detain, including people pulled over during traffic stops. It also creates a statewide Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit that would be under the direction of the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

The lawsuit charges that immigration is the responsibility of the federal government and the state is overstepping its bounds. It also says the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment, which prohibits unlawful searches and seizures.

“Individuals perceived as ‘foreign’ by state or local law enforcement agents will be in constant jeopardy of harassment and unlawfully prolonged detention and arrest,” the lawsuit states.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, said the group will seek a federal injunction to block the law from taking effect. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center and three immigrants’ rights groups are providing the legal muscle behind the lawsuit.

The defendants in the case are Gov. Nikki Haley, state Attorney General Alan Wilson, Charleston County Sheriff James Cannon and Scarlett Wilson, the 9th Circuit solicitor in Charleston.

Alan Wilson said his staff helped write the law, and he stands behind it.

“We have a strong opinion this law is constitutional and we’re prepared to defend it to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to,” he said.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states that have immigration laws like South Carolina’s. However, federal judges have not been uniform in their rulings, meaning the issue likely will land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Arizona, a federal judge blocked a section of the state’s law that required police officers to check residents’ immigration status. But late last month a federal judge in Alabama upheld that state’s effort to allow police to check immigration status.

Throughout the legislative process in South Carolina, advocates for immigrants’ rights argued that the immigration process is complicated and often people who have a right to be in the United States cannot present one identification card to prove it. The average police officer is not trained to recognize the various stages of the immigration process and the paperwork associated with it, Middleton said.

“It would put at risk the people who have a right to be here but can’t produce documents that would pass muster in this state,” Middleton said.

Among the plaintiffs in the suit are three unidentified people who are South Carolina residents said to be caught in the snarl of the federal immigration bureaucracy.

For example, Jane Doe No. 2 is a West Columbia resident with five children who has lived in South Carolina for six years, the lawsuit says. She lacks immigration status but has applied for a U-Visa, which is issued to crime victims and provides a path to lawful immigration. Federal authorities are aware that she is illegal but have not initiated deportation proceedings as her visa application is pending, the suit said.

The plaintiff said she would have to curtail her travel and daily activities to reduce the chance that she will be stopped, interrogated and detained based on her Latina appearance, the suit said.