Judiciary

The South Carolina House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would make municipalities prove they are not "sanctuary cities." Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill to make local governments in South Carolina certify they are enforcing immigration laws received approval from a state House panel Tuesday, despite objections from Democrats and some Republicans who say the measure is intended as a political boost to Gov. Henry McMaster's campaign.

The effort, first proposed last year by McMaster and state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, would require municipalities in the state to annually confirm they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities, ensuring they are not so-called "sanctuary cities."

Bannister acknowledged, as far as he is aware, South Carolina currently does not have any sanctuary cities — a term used to define cities that do not comply with requests from federal authorities to hold illegal immigrant suspects in jail. He argued the state should ensure none arise in the future.

Critics slammed the bill as a "solution in search of a problem" designed to provide "election fodder" for Republicans running in competitive primaries.

McMaster faces four GOP challengers this year in his bid to retain the governor's office.

"This is a June 12 issue," said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson, citing the date of the state's GOP primary. "We can call it what we want to, but it's just politics as usual."

Clary and state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, said McMaster and his staff have been actively lobbying lawmakers to support the bill.

By forcing cities to fill out new paperwork and law enforcement agencies checking it, Caskey argued the bill actually contradicts another conservative principle by growing the size of government. 

"What's next?" Caskey asked. "Are we going to require cities to certify that they didn't rob a bank?"

As evidence the bill is not solving a real problem, Caskey pointed out that state law enforcement officials did not testify in support it.

"There is no one, other than politicians, who have suggested this is something we actually need and should waste our time on," Caskey said.

Caskey predicted most Republican lawmakers would support the measure out of fear it would be used against them in a primary if they did not. In the end, no other Republicans joined Caskey and Clary in opposition, and the measure passed 13-9.

Within hours of a subcommittee advancing the bill earlier this month, McMaster's campaign sent out an email to supporters touting the news.

"I want to send a message loud and clear — before we experience those kind of problems in South Carolina — there is not a shelter for criminals anywhere in South Carolina," McMaster said earlier Tuesday, explaining why he supports the bill.

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The bill can now move to the House floor for a vote by the full chamber. If passed there, it would need approval of the Senate to become law.

Democrats unanimously opposed the effort. State Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Lake City, said the Legislature was wasting time that could be spent focused on curbing the opioid epidemic in the state. 

"This is no bueno, not at all," said McKnight. "We can do better than this and we should do better than this... We’ve got a real problem in this state and it is not sanctuary cities."

A previous measure that passed through the General Assembly in 2011 already gave South Carolina residents the ability to sue their cities if the local government does not enforce immigration laws.

Lawmakers who sponsored the 2011 bill said it was intended to make undocumented immigrants "self-deport." Significant portions of the bill, such as extending regular traffic stops so officers could check the immigration status of suspects, were blocked by federal courts.

Tuesday's committee hearing followed hours after a White House round table on the same subject. Meeting with law enforcement officials and lawmakers, President Donald Trump said sanctuary cities are "causing a lot of problems for this country."

"We're going to take care of the problem," said Trump, who has endorsed McMaster's campaign. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.