Court could provide clarity on immigration status checks

astice@islandpacket.comJuly 7, 2012 

Local law enforcement leaders hope a federal judge will help clarify how officers should handle immigration status checks when he revisits that and other issues surrounding South Carolina's immigration law on Monday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel halted enforcement of the state's immigration law in December until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an Arizona immigration law. The Arizona law was a model for South Carolina's law, as well as those passed in other states.

In its June 25 ruling on the Arizona statute, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out several sections of the law, but approved a key provision requiring police to check the immigration status of people they stop for other reasons.

South Carolina's law also has a provision allowing officers to ask people stopped for minor, unrelated offenses about their immigration status. However, Gergel's order blocked implementation of that part of the state's law.

Gergel will revisit his order at a hearing at 10 a.m. in Charleston and has said it may need to change in light of the Supreme Court's decision.

Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister is among those hoping the judge or the state's attorney general will clarify what officers should do if they suspect someone they have stopped is in the country illegally.

"We need someone to give an opinion on what, besides race-based reasons, would constitute 'reasonable suspicion' for believing that someone is in the country illegally," he said. "We also need to give some examples to officers of what paperwork someone who says they are not from this country should produce."

Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy said he hasn't received guidance he can pass along to his patrol officers either.

"It is my understanding that no training or other action will be taken until the (case before Gergel) is resolved," Clancy said.

The constitutionality of South Carolina's law was challenged by the federal government, the American Civil Liberties Union and local groups, including the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition based in Beaufort County.

George Kanuck of Bluffton, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, said the state's law will foster racial discrimination. White people pulled over for a broken tail light probably wouldn't be asked for papers documenting their immigration status, he said, but those with last names like Rodriguez and Gonzalez likely would be asked to produce them.

For now, state prosecutors have told S.C. law enforcement leaders to abide by the judge's original order putting enforcement on hold. In late June, state Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote to state public safety director Leroy Smith asking that his officers be told that, unless Gergel's order is lifted, the status-check provision in the state law cannot be implemented.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner has said he doubts South Carolina's law will have much effect on his deputies. Unlike the Bluffton and Beaufort police departments, the Sheriff's Office has a task force of deputies who already are empowered to act as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents. It is one of only four law enforcement agencies in the state participating in a federal program allowing enforcement of federal immigration law within their jurisdictions.

The order issued by Gergel in December allowed some provisions of the state's law to take effect, including a requirement that businesses check new employees' legal status through a federal system.

Meg Kinnard of The Associated Press and Noell Phillips of The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this article.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

For young, undocumented immigrants in Beaufort County, Obama's order brings hope, June 23, 2012

Employers have until July 1 to check status of hires using E-Verify, April 30, 2012 Blockage of immigration law just as well, Bluffton and Beaufort law enforcement says, Dec. 26, 2011

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