South Carolina’s “Climate of Suspicion”

Guest Blogger • Nov 17, 2011

photo taken from maryaustinphoto's flickr page

by Lindsey George

In recent weeks, sixteen Latin American and Caribbean nations asked to join the US Justice Department’s lawsuit against South Carolina’s anti-immigrant law SB 20.

SB 20, passed earlier this year in June by Gov. Nikki Haley, was modeled after similar immigration laws in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, and requires employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the citizenship status of all job applicants and employees.

Immediately after its passage, the federal government and civil rights groups such as the ACLU wasted no time in contesting it, noting that SB 20’s provisions are “unconstitutional and interfere with the nation’s powers to set and enforce immigration policy.” Since then, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay have been asked to join the suit.

Under SB 20, local law enforcement officers are also authorized and empowered to investigate the immigration status of any person they suspect may be in the country without documentation.

According to the director of the South Carolina chapter of the ACLU, this means that anyone who looks or sounds foreign, so to speak, including documented residents and US citizens, could be the target of racial profiling. One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit is a legal resident who argues that the law constructs a “climate of suspicion” around the lives of anyone who appears to be an immigrant. Residents also fear that SB 20 will change the way communities interact with one another—for instance, providing an undocumented immigrant with a car ride can carry a fine of up to $5,000, and so promoting racial profiling between all individuals.

Last week South Carolina responded to the widespread criticism in a statement, explaining clearly that Gov. Nikki Haley would not back down in the face of lawsuits and challenges, and that “the governor’s job is to protect the citizens of South Carolina. That’s what she’s doing, and she isn’t going to stop no matter who decides to sue her, whether it be the unions, the ACLU, DOJ or anyone else.”

Do such boasts sound familiar to anyone?

Last April, Arizona passed SB 1070, a similar anti-immigrant statute which was developed by now-former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce. In the face of lawsuits from the federal government and torrent criticisms from civil rights groups and residents of that state, Pearce unrelentingly backed the law, constantly arguing the following:

“The purpose of SB 1070 is to protect the citizens of Arizona from the devastating and deadly impact of rampant illegal immigration.”

Despite Pearce’s purported status as a grand-protector, his constituents took the drastic step to remove him from office in the middle of his term. Pearce’s opponents claimed that his ultra-conservative policies and extremist viewpoints, so often embodied by his impassioned defenses of SB 1070, were not in their own, their state’s, or it’s economy’s best interests.

This week, The Arizona Republic reported that the state of Arizona has spent over $2 million in legal fees defending SB 1070, which has been consistently struck down as unconstitutional by courts. Similarly, SB 20 will initially cost South Carolina $84 million just to implement and enforce the measure.

Between the mounting financial burden on the state and the threat of dividing South Carolina’s communities, we can only hope that Senator Pearce’s short life after SB 1070 is emblematic of the country’s gradually changing stance towards immigration.  Although South Carolina may initially believe SB 20 reflects the views of its constituents, when faced with the overwhelming costs that burdens all residents, South Carolina may choose human life over nostalgic discrimination.

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