Federal Judge Blocks Key Sections of South Carolina Immigration Law

on December 22 2011 3:03 PM
South Carolina's Governor Haley gestures as she address the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Charleston
A federal judge has put a preliminary injunction on a tough South Carolina immigration law that Gov. Nikki Haley supported. Reuters

Updated with comment.

A federal judge Thursday blocked enforcement of South Carolina's Arizona-style anti-immigration law, siding with the Obama administration's argument that three of the law's provisions unlawfully enter the federal government's turf.

The decision from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mark Gergel was a blow to South Carolina, which had sought to delay the case until the U.S. Supreme Court hashes out the Obama administration's challenge to Arizona's anti-immigration law.

Gergel, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, rejected South Carolina's argument that its law, known as Act 69, is an effort to cooperate with federal immigration laws and enforcement, a common refrain from states that have enacted similar immigration laws.

The judge noted that the legislative debate in the run up to the law's passage centered on criticism of the federal government's immigration policy and enforcement strategy.

Federal Judge: S.C. Cannot Adopt Its Own Immigration Policy

These [lawmakers], of course, have every right to hold that opinion, but that opinion does not entitle the State of South Carolina to adopt its own immigration policy to supplant the policy of the national government, Gergel wrote in his opinion.

The sections of the law, he found, would likely be preempted by federal immigration regulations.

Gergel's decision puts on hold provisions of the law that add new criminal penalties for transporting undocumented immigrants and failing to carry immigration papers in public, as well as a requirement that law enforcement determine the immigration status of anyone detained or arrested.

The U.S., Gergel wrote, having made a clear showing that they will likely succeed on the merits of their preemption challenge... are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief.

His opinion, however, let stand a one challenged section of Act 69 that prohibits selling phony IDs for immigrants. In addition to the Obama administration, a group of immigration organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to challenge parts of the law.

Mark Plowden, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, noted that 17 sections of the law's 20 provisions will be allowed to go into effect this January.

The United States Supreme Court will ultimately decide this matter in the coming year, Plowden said. Until then, it appears that many important aspects of the S.C. law will go into effect [Jan. 1].

Earlier in December, South Carolina filed a motion with the judge to stay the case and also allow the anti-immigration law to go into effect this January as scheduled. Georgia and Alabama, facing similar lawsuits from the Obama administration, filed motions in federal courts to delay their case until the Supreme Court rules on Arizona's law.

The three states have said Arizona's law is nearly identical to their own and that a ruling from the high court would resolve their own cases.

A ruling by the Supreme Court in Arizona is likely to resolve most or all of the issues in the instant case, Wilson said earlier this month.

A representative for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley did not immediately return request for comment. A Department of Justice spokesperson said the agency is pleased with the judge's order.

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