The South Carolina bill is the latest attempt by a state to take on immigration reform directly. Supporters of the South Carolina law say the Obama administration is not doing enough to enforce immigration law and keep undocumented immigrants from entering the US illegally.
“This state can no longer afford those who don’t come here the right way and we are now going to do something about it,” said South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) in a statement released the day of the bill signing.
The bill, scheduled to become law Jan. 1., allows law enforcement officers to ask for proof of citizenship from people they may suspect of being undocumented. It also criminalizes harboring or transporting people known to be in the country illegally and punishes immigrants if caught without a certificate of registration.
The US Department of Justice filed its lawsuit Monday, arguing that the federal government has the “preeminent” authority in immigration reform and that the rigidity of the South Carolina law “will cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants, and citizens who do not have or carry identification documents specified by the statute.”
The government is asking a federal judge to temporarily block the law so that it can be argued in court.
Taking the state to federal court follows the course of action taken in several other states that have pursued harsh immigration measures, particularly Alabama, which federal authorities challenged in August. A federal judge delayed some sections of the Alabama law while others remain in force.
How Alabama authorities will enforce the remaining parts of the law is uncertain. Alabama currently is unable to deport unauthorized immigrants from the state because the US Department of Homeland Security has made it clear it will not offer the required assistance.
Even though South Carolina Attorney General Tony West has said he is prepared to argue the legislation’s merits all the way to the US Supreme Court, state officials are closely tracking the outcome of the case in Alabama to see just how far a state can go to challenge federal authorities on the issue.
“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.
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.