South Carolina Legal Immigrants Worry Law Will Subject Them to Profiling

Legal immigrants and U.S citizens of Latino heritage in South Carolina say they are worried that the state’s immigration law – on track to go into effect Jan. 1 – will upend their lives.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month by a coalition of civil rights organizations – led by the American Civil Liberties Union – legal immigrants listed as plaintiffs speak of concerns that they will be singled out as suspected undocumented immigrants under the new law.

Yajaira Benet-Smith, a Venezuelan-born resident of South Carolina who is a legal immigrant, expresses concern in the lawsuit that her accent could prompt her to be seen as undocumented under the “climate of suspicion” created by the law, according to published reports.

Another resident, PuertoRico-born Carolina Belen de Paguada, tells the wire service Efe that because her husband is undocumented, she is worried that she could be fined up to $5,000 for knowingly transporting a foreigner who is illegally here.

“My husband is the supporter of the family,” Efe quotes de Paguada as saying. “I have a four-month-old baby. If they deport him, I don’t know what we’re going to do. The situation is terrible for everyone.”

I have a four-month-old baby. If they deport him, I don’t know what we’re going to do.

— Carolina Belen de Paguada, South Carolina resident

South Carolina’s law is similar in many respects to that of other states that have passed measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. It requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they believe may be in the country illegally, and mandates that all businesses check their hires through a federal online system known as E-Verify.

Supporters of South Carolina’s law say the federal government has failed to control illegal immigration, and that states – which they say bear the consequences – must address the problem themselves.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican and a co-sponsor of the law, says that illegal immigrants in South Carolina's schools, hospitals and prisons impose a "tremendous financial cost" on state taxpayers, reports the Island Packet.

Davis says that the burden of illegal immigration forces local officials to "push the envelope" to protect the state’s interests.

Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, told reporters she supports the law.

“First of all, I am proof positive that what makes this country great is that we are a country of immigrants,” she is quoted as saying in published reports. “ But we are a country of laws and we have to understand that if we violate those laws, we violate everything that makes this country great.”

Haley, who is Republican, is quoted as saying she believed in giving immigrants the opportunity to reach their dreams, as her parents did.

“But they should also want to do it legally,” she said.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, who supports the law, told The Post and Courier, a newspaper based in Charleston: “I’m not afraid of the A.C.L.U. I am afraid of the devastating effects of illegal immigration in this nation and this state.”

Hispanics comprise about 5 percent – or 236,000 -- of South Carolina’s population.  The state’s undocumented population is estimated to be about 50,000.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Justice Department official was scheduled to meet Wednesday with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to talk about the law. Justice Department officials say their lawyers are reviewing South Carolina's law.

The Justice Department has mounted court challenges against similar laws in other states, often succeeding in getting some parts of the measures blocked from taking effect.

Recently, for instance, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a key part of Alabama's new immigration law that requires schools to check immigration status but upheld other parts.

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at or on Twitter @LlorenteLatino.

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