South Carolina Latest State To Enact A Controversial Immigration Law

06/27/2011 07:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Nikki Haley added South Carolina to the list of Republican-controlled states to implement harsh immigration laws when she signed her state's copycat bill to Arizona's SB 1070 on Monday despite objections from a coalition of 21 faith and civil rights groups.

South Carolina is now poised to join Arizona, Georgia and Texas, all of which are being sued over their immigration measures, with lawsuits threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center and other advocacy groups.

"It invites racial profiling," said Victoria Middleton, director of the ACLU of South Carolina. "And it basically will subject anyone who looks or sounds foreign to discrimination."

The South Carolina legislation was modeled off of the infamous SB 1070 Arizona immigration enforcement law, empowering local police to ask for documents to prove a person’s legal status. Police can check the status of anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally during an arrest or a traffic stop for anything other than speeding.

Also on Monday, a federal judge in Georgia blocked parts of the state's similar immigration crackdown law -- including the provision that allowed local police to check a person's legal status and a measure that punished anyone who knowingly harbored an illegal immigrant.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash questioned the intent of the Georgia government and whether it could effectively carry out an immigration overhaul as a state. He ultimately wrote that the state was entering federal jurisdiction.

"I mean, you are not going to have 50 systems of immigration regulation," Thrash said last Monday in court. "In Georgia, you are going to have 159. Every county, every municipality is going to decide what its immigration policy is going to be under this law."

South Carolina and Georgia are two of the 26 states to introduce bills copying Arizona's SB 1070, but so far none have been successfully implemented, according to the Latino advocacy organization National Council of La Raza. Many states sought various immigration reforms this year, emboldened by the Republican sweeps in legislatures and governor's offices throughout the country in 2010, but the reforms were wiped out in legislatures that focused on the economy and other issues during their sessions.

In the meantime, Congress has been deadlocked on immigration reform, with no major changes after a reform effort fell apart in 2007. Even incremental changes to the immigration system, such as the DREAM Act to legalize some undocumented young people who came to the United States as children, have been unable to pass the Senate.

Instead, the government continues to ramp up enforcement along the border to appease "restrictionists" who refuse to sign onto anything that includes legalization of the immigrants already in the U.S. until the border is completely sealed, said John D. Skrentny, director at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and a professor of sociology at University of California-San Diego.

"And so we keep throwing resources at the border and meanwhile advocates for immigrants keep saying, 'Well look, this is bad for immigrants, they’re being exploited, it’s bad for American workers, they can be undercut. We gotta legalize these people, and many of them have been here for many years,'" Skrentny said. "So they’re at a deadlock on this."

This led to frustration at the state level, where some legislatures have attempted to tackle illegal immigration on their own.

"Obviously this comes out of a frustration that I think everybody has over the broken immigration system," said Elena Lacayo, immigration field coordinator for La Raza. "Everyone, I think, on both sides of the issue are very, very frustrated with what we have now. The status quo is clearly terrible for a lot of people -- immigrants I think, especially -- but a lot of other folks are concerned about what the consequences of the undocumented population [are]."

Other state-level proposals included cutting off public benefits and in-state tuition assistance for illegal immigrants. But states have also gone the other way, such as Maryland expanding tuition assistance and several opting out of the Secure Communities program, which checks for legal status whenever someone is detained.

"I’m not sure that there was any one thing that triggered state and local governments to get involved," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Mehlman argued states have acted because in the absence of Congressional action, they are the ones paying for immigrants' education, emergency health care, and other services removed from the federal government's eye.

"You have this dichotomy here where the federal government is charged with responsibility of making and enforcing immigration laws; state and local governments wind up bearing the burdens of illegal immigration," he said.

But states are also getting entangled in expensive legal fees as these tough immigration laws get challenged in court. Farmers Branch, Texas, a town of about 26,000, spent more than $3 million defending a 2006 ordinance that fines landlords who rent to illegal aliens and allows local authorities to screen illegal aliens in police custody. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) assisted the town, as well as one in Pennsylvania in a similar battle.

Alabama passed a law like the Farmers Branch ordinance, which would potentially place a landlord in prison for up to 20 years if caught knowingly renting to undocumented immigrants. The Alabama law landed the state with a lawsuit from the ACLU.

Beyond costly lawsuits, though, there are other monetary risks to implementing a controversial immigration law modeled after Arizona's, Lacayo said.

Religious groups, civil rights activists and the Mexican government have all actively petitioned against South Carolina's new law, arguing the bill spends $1.3 million to create a statewide immigration police force, in addition to the legal costs to defend the lawsuit.

"We see a coalition of religious groups, business groups, that have really seen the impact of SB 1070's law on Arizona's economy and tourism and industry, and they’re really saying, 'Well, we don’t want that in our state,'" she said. "And also the fact that a lot of states are facing budget problems and these measures aren’t free."