COLUMBIA -- The head of South Carolina's labor agency said Monday that federal lawsuits challenging the state's anti-illegal immigration law won't affect the law's mandate that businesses check their new employees' legal status.
Director Catherine Templeton said lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department and American Civil Liberties Union have no bearing on the part of the law her agency oversees. The two groups are asking a judge to prevent the law from taking effect Jan. 1, and to ultimately throw it out as unconstitutional. A hearing is set for Dec. 19.
But Templeton said neither lawsuit targets the requirements that all businesses run their new hires through the federal online system E-Verify, so her agency will begin enforcing those requirements regardless of what happens with provisions specifically challenged.
She contends that part is "in lock-step" with a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year upholding an Arizona law putting rules on businesses. Using that May decision, South Carolina legislators tweaked a similar law they passed in 2008 as part of the larger anti- illegal immigration package they passed in June.
Sen. Larry Martin, who helped persuade senators to make the changes, said he thinks that without them the lawsuits would have targeted the business requirements, too.
"We short-circuited that by taking that action," said Martin, R-Pickens. "We knew we were likely to be sued on the criminal penalties, but we didn't want to give them a gift horse by ignoring the Supreme Court decision in May, when we obviously had some cleanup work to do. You don't pick a fight you know you're going to lose."
An ACLU attorney, however, contends the rules on businesses are not completely safe. While neither lawsuit goes after that part yet, his group's lawsuit challenges the law in its entirety as an overall unconstitutional scheme to regulate illegal immigration. So the entire law could still be thrown out, said Andre Segura of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
In lawsuits against other states' anti-illegal immigration laws, judges have barred specific parts of their laws from taking effect.
The lawsuits against South Carolina focus on the requirement that law enforcement officers try to check the legal status of someone they suspect is in the country illegally. The phone call to federal officials must follow an arrest or traffic stop for something else. While the law says officers can't hold someone solely on that suspicion, opponents say it would encourage racial profiling.
The lawsuits also target sections that make it a felony for someone to make counterfeit photo IDs for illegal residents, for someone to transport illegal immigrats or for illegal immigrants to allow themselves to be transported.
Justice department officials said South Carolina's law -- like similar laws the agency is challenging in other states -- diverts federal resources from high-priority targets, such as terrorism, drug smuggling and gang activity. They contend the laws will result in the harassment and detention of foreign visitors and legal immigrants, as well as U.S. citizens, who can't immediately prove their legal status.