Judge blocks parts of South Carolina immigration law

CHARLESTON, South Carolina Thu Dec 22, 2011 4:42pm EST

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CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina is barred from enforcing several key areas of its new law aimed to curb illegal immigration, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, the sixth state to have an immigration law stymied by the courts.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel temporarily blocked parts of South Carolina's measure. He ruled that the federal government has exclusive constitutional authority to regulate immigration and the state's law would disrupt federal enforcement operations.

The U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of civil rights groups had sued to keep some aspects of the law from going into effect on January 1.

The judge said South Carolina could not require police officers to check the immigration status of a person they stop for even a minor traffic violation if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.

This "state-mandated scrutiny is without consideration of federal enforcement priorities and unquestionably vastly expands the persons targeted for immigration enforcement action," Gergel said.

Gergel also barred South Carolina from making it a felony for anyone knowingly to harbor or transport an undocumented person.

The state cannot require immigrants to carry federal alien registration documents because such registration is under the exclusive control of the federal government, the judge said.

The state Attorney General's Office did not respond to questions about whether it will appeal the ruling.

GET TOUGH

South Carolina is among the states that have enacted tough new laws against illegal immigration in the last two years, citing inaction by the federal government that has left a void in immigration policy.

But federal judges have consistently blocked the attempts, halting key parts of other immigration laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana.

There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Gergel said South Carolina's law would cause irreparable harm to U.S. foreign policy and relations.

"No credible national sovereign can allow an individual state to embark on an independent immigration policy," wrote the judge, who heard oral arguments in the case in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced this month that it will hear arguments in the Arizona immigration case next spring.

"If the feds were doing their job, we wouldn't have had to address illegal immigration reform at the state level," said Rob Godfrey, spokesman for South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley. "But, until they do, we're going to keep fighting in South Carolina to be able to enforce our laws."

Opponents of the South Carolina measure applauded the judge's ruling as a "further setback" for such state legislation.

"We are pleased that the judge has blocked the most problematic provisions of South Carolina's law, recognizing that this would have caused serious harm," said Andre Segura, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)

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