The state of South Carolina reached a tentative agreement Monday that bans police from holding motorists while checking to see if they are in the country illegally.
Officers still can ask motorists stopped on other potential violations for documents to prove their citizenship, as provided for under the state’s 2011 law. But they will not be able to detain those motorists while checking their immigration status.
Not being able to detain those motorists while police check immigration records with federal authorities “defangs” the law, said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney at the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center.
“It’s unconstitutional and bad policy, and the state realized it’s more of a headache than its worth,” said Tumlin, whose group was among several that joined the federal government in suing South Carolina over the law.
A federal judge now must approve Monday’s agreement.
“Constitutional rights apply to all, and no one is required to answer any question by state or local officials about their immigration status,” said Andre Segura, an attorney for the ACLU, among the groups to sue the state.
South Carolina’s law was modeled after one in Arizona, portions of which were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Similar immigration laws have been passed in Alabama, Georgia and Utah, though they are not enforced fully in some states after court rulings, Tumlin said.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson disagreed with rulings that have overruled parts of the immigration laws, according to a court filing Monday. But the state’s top legal official chose to stop fighting the case after losing in the federal court of appeals.
An appeals court ruled last summer that part of the S.C. law inappropriately criminalized activity — immigration policy — that should be up to the federal government to regulate.
The S.C. case was not appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which already had ruled on the Arizona law.
Nonetheless, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley wants to keep fighting illegal immigration.
“Illegal immigration is still a serious issue in this state, and this settlement doesn’t change that or Gov. Haley’s position on the matter,” said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. “The fact is, the federal government has completely failed to address this problem and, until they do, South Carolina will continue doing what is necessary to uphold the laws of our state.”
Some business-related parts of the law went into effect in 2012, including a requirement that businesses check new hires’ legal status through a federal system.
But much of the S.C. law has been blocked since a federal judge issued an injunction, only months after Haley signed the measure.
The proposed settlement will relieve law-enforcement officers of spending extra time checking the residency status of potential violators, Tumlin said. The agreement also should ease the minds of people who are fearful about going to the police to report crimes because they lack documentation, she said.
“Law enforcement needs to build trust in these communities,” Tumlin said.
An S.C. attorney general’s opinion included in the proposed settlement Monday said the law does not allow law-enforcement officers to:
• Prolong a traffic stop for a potential law violation to determine a person’s immigration status.
• Keep a person in jail to check their residency status.
• Arrest someone solely because they are in the country illegally or transfer them to federal authorities.
“This settlement should turn South Carolina efforts, spent defending a largely unconstitutional law, toward ensuring that state and local officers undertake law enforcement not on the basis of individuals’ immigration status, real or perceived,” Amy Pedersen, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement, “but in line with our federal system of government and laws preserving freedom and individual liberties.”
The Associated Press contributed.