A federal judge's ruling that temporarily blocks key parts of South Carolina's illegal immigration law from going into effect Jan. 1 will spare law enforcement from carrying out its measures without training or extra resources.
Local law enforcement described the law as a "feel-good" measure that wouldn't deter illegal immigration, but which had the potential to cause confusion and overcrowd jails.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel blocked portions of the law that would have required law enforcement with "reasonable suspicion" to check the immigration status of people at traffic stops starting New Year's Day, although they couldn't detain someone for that reason alone.
Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister had some questions about what constituted "reasonable suspicion" and couldn't get an answer.
"What is the determining factor?" McAllister said. "Is it if they can't produce a driver's license? If they look Hispanic or different? Is it if they don't speak English? How can you tell?"
That's one of the reasons he didn't intend to change how his department treats illegal immigrants without training to keep his officers from "flying blind."
The S.C. Criminal Justice Academy did not create a training program for state officers and deputies, although the issue might have been addressed in January, said academy general counsel Brandy Duncan.
McAllister said he applauded efforts to tackle illegal immigration, but he doubted the state's law would be effective.
"With this law, my officer is going to call a 1-800 number, and federal immigration officials are going to thank us for our time if they even do that," McAllister said.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office also said that he doubted the new law would have changed standard procedure for deputies.
The Sheriff's Office, through an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, is one of only four law enforcement agencies in the state to enforce immigration laws within their jurisdictions through a federal program.
It is the only one with a task force made up of seven deputies who also act as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and can conduct investigations and make arrests, according to ICE spokesman Vincent Picard.
"We have full authority to enforce federal immigration law, and we're going to continue to do so under our contract with the Department of Homeland Security," Tanner said.
In addition, every person booked at the Beaufort County Detention Center is checked against federal immigration and criminal databases, Tanner said.
Judge Gergel halted sections of the law from going into effect after the federal government challenged its constitutionality. Gergel wrote in his ruling that it would ultimately ensnare too many "low priority targets" that could bog down federal immigration-enforcement efforts.
Individuals and groups such as the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition also filed suit over the law, backed by the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Supreme Court is slated to take up a lawsuit challenging the similar Arizona law in its next cycle.
Coalition chairman Eric Esquivel said he is celebrating the judge's ruling.
"We do have an immigration issue in our country, and it needs to be dealt with in a logical, humane, constitutional way that's good for our state and our economy," Esquivel said.
McAllister agreed that illegal immigration needs to be addressed.
"I firmly believe that the federal government has to fix its immigration problem," McAllister said. "Leaving it to the states is an abdication of their duty to secure our borders.
"Hopefully the Supreme Court decision will give us all some clarity."
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/lcblotter.
- South Carolina immigration law in limbo as legal wrangling progresses, Dec. 19, 2011
- Federal government moves to block state's immigration law, Oct. 31, 2011
- Residents, groups sue over state's immigration law, Oct. 30, 2011
- State promoting small-business awareness of E-Verify in wake of new law, Oct. 25, 2011
- Lowcountry residents ask court to throw out S.C. immigration law, Oct. 19, 2011
- Sheriff calls S.C. immigration bill a 'smoke screen' that wil burden police and crowd jails, May 28, 2011
- Experts offer a primer on illegal immigratin, Nov. 17, 2010
- Sheriff's Office to refocus on verifying employment documents, May 2, 2009