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Alabama-lite? US sues to block South Carolina illegal immigration law.

As in Arizona and Alabama, the Justice Department wants to stop an anti-illegal-immigration law from taking effect – this time in South Carolina. The stable of states challenging federal immigration authority is growing.

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“In a sense, we’re a footnote to the story. What happens in Alabama will overshadow what will happen here,” says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

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The real issue is not whether or not the state has the authority to draft its own immigration measures, Mr. Tompkins says. The more important question, he adds, is if the new law is “discriminatory” and therefore, unconstitutional.

There are 55,000 undocumented immigrants in South Carolina, representing 1 percent of the state’s total population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Comparably, undocumented workers represent 6 percent and 2.5 percent of total populations in Arizona and Alabama, respectively.

Despite the low numbers, the real issue in South Carolina may be the relatively sudden shift in demographics over the past ten years, coupled with economic disparity.

According to US Census data, the number of Hispanics in South Carolina increased 147 percent in 2010 from ten years prior. Hispanics now represent 5 percent of the state’s population, exactly double the number in 2000. Pew reports that Hispanics now represent 2 percent of the state’s labor force.

The latest census numbers show the state’s poverty rate hovering at 17 percent – higher than both the national average and the 10 percent unemployment rate the state saw ten years prior.

“The economy is a huge factor” why concerns over illegal immigration is gaining traction in the state, says Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-profit progressive think tank based in Durham, N.C.

“With the great recession, South Carolina is a poster child of the double whammy: low incomes and now soaring unemployment,” Mr. Kromm says. “There is now a lot of economic uncertainty and that probably helps fuel some of the other anxieties.”

The South Carolina law is not considered as harsh as its Alabama counterpart. While it contains many of the same measures, such as allowing law enforcement officials to check for proof of citizenship, it does not include the Alabama provision that allows school officials to check the legal status of its students.

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