COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley signed changes into law today that grant more power to police to check whether people are illegal immigrants, a move expected to face legal challenges after similar measures met with lawsuits in other states.
The changes in law require police in South Carolina to call federal immigration officials if someone is suspected of being in the country illegally. And it creates a new police force to enforce a law that would also make it a felony to make fake photographic identification for illegal immigrants. People convicted of that felony could face $25,000 fines and five years in prison.
The changes tighten what already were some of the nation’s toughest measures to curb illegal immigrants living and working here.
Haley, the Bamberg-born daughter of immigrants from India, emphasized her background as she spoke to supporters and opponents at the bill signing.
“As the daughter of immigrants, I want to make everyone aware that this bill has a tolerance to it. ... This is not a bill that pushes one group away for another group. This is a bill that enforces laws,” she said.
Legal immigrants “come here, they put in their time, they pay the price and they get here the right way,” Haley said. “What we’re saying is this state can no longer afford to support people that don’t come here the right way and we are now going to do something about it.”
Under the changes, police can ask about immigration status after an arrest or traffic stop and can’t hold anyone solely on the suspicion that they’re an illegal immigrant. It requires officers to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally.
Haley brushed aside rumblings that the American Civil Liberties Union plans to sue over the law before it takes effect in January. She said she has “a long list of lawsuits that continue to come my way and the more they send lawsuits (it) just reminds me the more I’m doing my job for the state of South Carolina.”
State ACLU Director Victoria Middleton said the law invites racial profiling. “And it basically will subject anyone who looks or sounds foreign to discrimination,” Middleton said.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to block similar laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana, and Georgia. It is also planning to sue in Alabama.
When the GOP -dominated House gave the legislation final approval last week, House Speaker Bobby Harrell said the state was stepping into a void because the federal government “refuses to effectively support our law enforcement officers by enforcing immigration laws.”
South Carolina’s illegal immigration law was considered one of the nation’s toughest measures when it was first passed in 2008. But legislators have been criticized for failing to put money into enforcing the law. The spending plan on Haley’s desk for vetoes now includes $1.3 million toward for the law enforcement unit.
Despite the costs, Haley said the state will save money because illegal immigrants will use fewer services.
Haley said South Carolina is a tolerant state. But “we follow laws in South Carolina and we don’t turn our backs on anything that is illegal.”
Bill co-sponsor Larry Grooms called illegal immigration a threat to the nation’s liberty and freedom that must be eradicated. “They cling together in illegal communities and bring with them drugs, prostitution, violent crime and gang activity,” Grooms said in remarks to brought heckles from bill opponents
Columbia activist Kevin Gray said “that’s just patently racist.”
Julie Smithwick-Leone of West Columbia said Grooms’ remarks showed ignorance “that shows how far removed these legislators are from the population and they really don’t know who the population is what all they are giving and bringing to our state.”
Brett Bursey of the South Carolina Progressive Network opposed the legislation and wondered who would replace illegal immigrant workers now doing work in agriculture. “Who’s going to pick our tomatoes, our watermelons and our cucumbers?” Bursey asked