Lowcountry residents ask court to throw out S.C. immigration law

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Lowcountry residents ask court to throw out S.C. immigration law

By KYLE PETERSON
kpeterson@beaufortgazette.com
Published Wednesday, October 19, 2011   |  656 Words  |  

A Beaufort immigrant and a Hilton Head Island advocacy group are asking judges to throw out South Carolina's new immigration law, scheduled to kick in Jan. 1.

About a dozen individuals and organizations, including the Hilton Head-based Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, filed suit in federal court last week, arguing the law is unconstitutional.

But state officials are prepared to defend the law to the end, said Mark Plowden, communications director for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

"This office participated in drafting this law, and we are confident in its constitutionality," Plowden said. "The state's law will be defended to the highest court in the land, if necessary."

One of the law's key provisions requires law enforcement officers to check a person's immigration status during arrests and routine traffic stops if the officer suspects the person is in the country illegally.

The lawsuit, backed by the S.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues this will leave foreign-looking individuals "in constant jeopardy of harassment and unlawfully prolonged detention and arrest."

"How would they base their suspicion that someone may be an immigrant, apart from how someone looks or sounds or speaks?" asked state ACLU executive director Victoria Middleton.

Yajaira Benet-Smith, a Beaufort resident listed as a plaintiff in the case, was born in Venezuela and now has permanent, legal U.S. residency, according to the suit. But she worries about the "climate of suspicion" created by the new law and is afraid she might be detained based solely on her accent, court filings state. Benet-Smith could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

George Kanuck, co-chair of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, called the law and others like it "un-American." He said the measures will send Hispanics -- even ones with legal residency -- into the shadows.

Legal residents might be afraid to register as voters if they have close contact or perhaps live with an illegal immigrant. Others might stop driving altogether. One of the plaintiffs, an unnamed illegal immigrant in West Columbia, said she was afraid to tell police about a shooting in her neighborhood, for fear her residency might be questioned, according to the lawsuit.

"This Hispanic community is very fearful of what's going on," Kanuck said.

Critics of the law also argue immigration is a federal responsibility, and the state is overstepping its bounds.

"If folks have a problem with the current state of the immigration laws, they should call Joe Wilson, Lindsey Graham, Jim DeMint," said Craig Dobson, a coalition board member and federal immigration attorney. "It's their problem."

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, disagrees.

Davis, who cosponsored the law, argued that illegal immigrants in South Carolina's schools, hospitals and prisons impose a "tremendous financial cost" on state taxpayers. Therefore, he argued legislators must "push the envelope" to find out what they can do to protect South Carolina as a sovereign state.

Similar lawsuits have been filed against other state immigration laws.

A federal judge blocked a section of Arizona's law that required police officers to check suspects' immigration statuses. But a similar provision in Alabama was upheld.

Because federal judges have not been uniform in their rulings, the issue probably will land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

-- The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

Related Content:

Initial complaint filed in Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, et al. v. Nikki Haley, et al.


Sheriff calls S.C. immigration bill a 'smoke screen' that will burden police and crowd jails, May 28, 2011