SUMMERVILLE, SC (AP) -- This quiet South Carolina community thousands of miles from the Southwest gave initial approval Wednesday to ban illegal immigrants from living within the town limits.
"The problem is not just in the border states, it's right here," Councilman Walter Bailey said shortly before they voted 4-2 to give first approval to the ban, which would also, in most cases, keep illegal immigrants from working in the town about 20 miles from Charleston.
About 100 people gathered in the town hall for the meeting and the 20 or so who addressed the council during 90 minutes of public comments were about evenly divided between supporters and opponents.
Under the ordinance, up for final approval next month, renters would have to prove they are American citizens or in the country legally. A verification form would have to be filed with the town.
Victoria Middleton, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, warned the council that there are questions about the constitutionality of the ordinance, adding immigration is not a local issue.
"Congress and the Constitution give the federal government the power to enforce immigration," she warned. She said local communities have spent upward to $1 million in futile efforts to impose such laws.
"I'm offended by the intimidation of the ACLU," Bailey said later. "If they want to challenge us to a lawsuit, I accept that challenge."
The immigration debate has moved to the political forefront since Arizona passed a contentious measure that among other provisions instructs police to question whether people are in the country legally when they are enforcing other laws. A federal judge has since blocked that and others parts of the law from being enforced.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 44 states passed 191 state laws and adopted 128 resolutions on immigration in the first six months of this year. Five were vetoed.
There are numerous local immigration ordinances across the country, too many to track, said Vivek Malhotra, the national advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Summerville Councilman Mike Dawson suggested the housing and harboring regulations be deleted from the ordinance - a motion that failed for lack of a second.
"A lawsuit is not just a possibility, it's a certainty," he said, adding that town insurance probably won't cover the cost of a constitutional challenge.
Councilman Aaron Brown said it's the town's responsibility to provide basic services such as fire and police protection.
"One of the problems with this ordinance is it goes beyond what the town owes you," he told the audience, adding new businesses won't want to locate in a town where there is a controversy over immigration.
Councilman Bob Jackson, who supported the ordinance and who owns rental units, said the paperwork required by the proposal is not much more than what rental agents do now to check tenants.
"The illegals entering are hurting everybody, including the people who are waiting to come here legally," he said.
"This is not a town issue, it's a federal issue," said Diane Salazar who described herself as a leader of the local Latino community. "Are you as a town ready for a civil rights lawsuit?"
Bailey, a former state prosecutor, said the ordinance was prompted in part by the Obama administration's challenge of the new Arizona law that was to have taken effect last month.
"I am frustrated the federal government is doing nothing," he said. "If we don't do this we might as well put signs up on every road into town welcoming illegal aliens."