Judge Hears Arguments on South Carolina Immigration Law

On December 19, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel began listening to arguments in the federal government’s case against South Carolina’s recently passed immigration law.

South Carolina’s law was modeled on hard-line immigration reform undertaken in several other states, including Arizona and Alabama, which have also faced federal lawsuits. Gergel found himself confronting many of the same issues that have come into play in those cases, including the question of whether a state has the power to enact sweeping immigration laws, given that immigration is the province of the federal government.

On this issue, Gergel referred to a brief he received from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. The judge said Burns asserted the South Carolina law is causing tension with certain foreign nations, such as Mexico, and interfering with the State Department’s ability to set the country’s international relations agenda.

Local newspaper The State quoted Gergel as saying, “What Mr. Burns is saying is, ‘I’m talking about drug trafficking and the Mexican government is talking about South Carolina.'”

Those arguing South Carolina’s side of the case said the state had to take action given the federal government’s failure to enact and enforce effective immigration laws.

Gergel indicated he is not likely to throw out the South Carolina law in its entirety, but he might block certain provisions, such as one making it a criminal offense to be an illegal immigrant. This would allow South Carolina law enforcement officers to detain people simply for being in the state without proper documentation of their citizenship status.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to rule on the constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070. The Supreme Court’s ruling will likely apply to South Carolina’s law, as well, but Gergel denied a motion by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to delay action on the South Carolina case until the Supreme Court renders a decision.