S.C. Immigration Law Faces Legal Challenges

South Carolina's new immigration law allows law enforcement officials to ask for immigration papers if they suspect someone of being in the country illegally. It also makes it a crime to transport or harbor anyone who is in the country illegally. Civil rights groups have challenged the law, and recently the Justice Department also filed suit to block it. Immigrant communities say the measure is already affecting them, even though it doesn't go into effect until January.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Fierce debates over immigration policy have been playing out at the state level. South Carolina's new immigration law is one of the toughest in the nation. It's facing legal challenges from the Justice Department and civil rights groups.

The law doesn't go into effect until January, but as we hear from NPR's Kathy Lohr, many Latinos are already feeling the effects.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: South Carolina's immigration law is patterned after those in Arizona and Alabama. Senator Larry Grooms says he sponsored the bill because of what he says is a growing illegal population.

STATE SENATOR LARRY GROOMS: We welcome those who are here legally. But those who want to come to this nation illegally do not come to South Carolina. And we hope that this law will send a strong signal this is not the place to be if you choose to come into this country illegally.

LOHR: According to some estimates, 55,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state. The new law says in part, if police stop anyone for any crime, like a traffic ticket, they can question and detain them if they suspect they're in the country illegally. The law also prohibits anyone from harboring those who are undocumented or even giving them a ride.

PEDRO DE ARMAS: I think it's unfair.

LOHR: Pedro de Armas is publisher of El Informador, a Spanish language newspaper in Charleston area. He says law enforcement is already discriminating against the Latino community, including legal residents.

ARMAS: I guess it makes it easy for any reason. Or they can find the minimum excuse to just stop you and then, oh, by the way. Let me see. Let me see your documents.

LOHR: De Armas says many who feel threatened are trying to figure out what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITCHEN UTENSILS)

LOHR: This single mother is preparing dinner for her two girls. Tonight, it's eggs and grits, a favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATING)

LOHR: Maria, that's her middle name, doesn't want to be identified because she's undocumented and fears being deported.

MARIA: I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen with my kids. That's the thing that scares me more.

LOHR: Maria's girls, in first and third grades, were born in the U.S. and are legal. They worry she'll be arrested. Police in North Charleston have set up roadblocks and have arrested Latinos, including some men from Maria's church.

MARIA: They're doing these meetings at church of how we can do to protect others, how you have to memorize the phone numbers from your closest family, you know, how you have to get your money out of the bank. They kind of start telling you how to start protecting yourself. And then, of course, the kids are - they don't need to live like that.

LOHR: Maria, who's 27, is a waitress and doesn't want to go back to Mexico. She says it's too dangerous there. But now, she's afraid to drive to work here and even to go out at night.

MARIA: It's just really, really painful. It's just, I have no words to explain.

GROOMS: If we had been enforcing our immigration law all along, we wouldn't have a problem today.

LOHR: Again Senator Larry Grooms, who says the state has had to take a hard line.

GROOMS: The federal government failed in its responsibilities and it was high time the states acted because the longer we wait to act, the harder it will be on those who are here and are trapped.

LOHR: Grooms says some businesses are taking advantage of illegal immigrants, paying low wages and gaining an unfair advantage over others that follow the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROADWAY)

LOHR: But in a busy commercial area in North Charleston, which caters to the Latino community, Angel Cruz says his insurance business has declined by 60 percent since the law was signed in June.

ANGEL CRUZ: It's affecting me financially. It's affecting our community. It's affecting small business like myself and all these other businesses in this plaza. You can look around and see it's very desolate.

LOHR: The ACLU and the Justice Department are among those that have sued to block parts of South Carolina's law. The government says the state is usurping federal power by enacting its own immigration policy. And federal attorneys say the state will end up harassing legal residents.

On a recent radio talk show, Governor Nikki Haley said she expected the lawsuits and will not back down.

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: We're not going to be quiet about this. You know, they're not fixing the problem yet not allowing us to fix our problem either. They can't have it both ways.

LOHR: Governor Haley says it's an issue of states' rights. But the Latino community here says the focus should be on creating a legal pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina.

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