Thursday’s editorial addresses the state’s controversial new immigration law, which was in court this week, and will be again later this month.
Presented with the task of forging a viable law, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has fired up his furnace.
Gergel, who plans to rule by Dec. 31 on South Carolina’s illegal immigration law, is now tasked with refining that law, taking out bits here, perhaps polishing something else there, tweaking it so that it not only fulfills its function but fits in with the rest of our state and our nation’s many rules.
It’s a process that would ring familiar to metallurgists, blacksmiths and alchemists for hundreds of years. Presented with a handful of rough, imperfect ore, these skilled practitioners heated, stirred, hammered and manipulated material into the best version of itself. They drew out all of the contaminants and weaknesses, scooping out the dross and skimming off the slag, until they were left with a metal pure to its core, or at least as close as possible.
A similar course of action is now being undertaken with our state’s immigration law. It may be frustrating to some, and it may look as though much is being lost, but in the process we see the best of our law-abiding, democratic and malleable society.
The legislature has done its part for now, mining the wishes of its constituents and using them to craft a bill that is admittedly a bit rough around the edges. That conglomeration of new rules, signed by the governor in June, now faces the fierce furnace of our justice system, which will further test its legality and its adherence to our shared Constitutional values and other honored statements of principle. Along the way, the law will likely become leaner and more focused. This is as it should be.
In the court hearing Monday, Gergel seemed to home in on some sections that he found disturbing, among them the requirement that all noncitizens carry identification with them wherever they go and the rule that would require police officers to check the citizenship status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.
Illegal immigration is a valid concern for our state – and one that won’t be fully fixed without a larger, national solution – but these two sections in particular deserve to be tossed out, or more clearly defined at the very least. The first is simply repugnant to the idea of our free society. Forcing noncitizens – whether they be legal residents or not – to carry ID papers as if they are second-class individuals violates the values of equality, fairness and dignity that our nation holds dear.
On Monday, Gergel seemed to agree. “Someone’s seeking asylum because he’s being tortured in his own country and we’re going to pull him over on the way to Piggly Wiggly and throw him in jail?” he asked.
A second legitimate concern with the law is the new mandate for law enforcement officers to check the citizenship status of anyone they detain – whether on the street, in a traffic stop or as part of another arrest – if they feel there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an illegal immigrant. In July, after the law was signed by Gov. Nikki Haley, we noted our concern about this rule, and nothing has changed. The act says that police are not allowed to base their suspicion on race or national origin, but barring a T-shirt that says, “I’m here illegally,” it’s hard to see how the new rule will lead to anything other than racial profiling and subsequently to lawsuit headaches for the state.
Speaking of lawsuits, the whole discussion may be moot by this time next year, as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the Arizona immigration law that South Carolina used as its model. The high court’s ruling will undoubtedly affect the implementation of our own.
“The one thing we can all be assured of … is none of us are going to be the last word on this,” Gergel said.
In the meantime, however, the state law is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, barring a surprise injunction from Gergel. If you’re in the Palmetto State legally, but not a U.S. citizen, now’s the time to find your ID and keep it close.