In the worst-governed state in the nation, our General Assembly is poised to pass another expensive, unnecessary, futile law to quell the primordial fear that it can neither understand nor control. For nearly two centuries that fear has driven this poor old state into a pattern of reckless, irrational, and self-destructive behavior.
I give you the latest folly of our state Legislature, Senate Bill 20, a.k.a. the Show Me Your Papers Act. SB 20 is patterned on the infamous Arizona immigration law that passed last year and is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Senate bill provides for a law enforcement officer to verify the immigration status of any person stopped, detained, or arrested if the officer suspects that person may be in the country illegally. How a law enforcement officer is supposed to suspect an alien is in the country illegally is some cabalistic wisdom privy only to the Legislature and law enforcement. But one thing seems certain — based on human nature and the Arizona experience — and that is that this law is going to lead to profiling by law enforcement. And that will lead to legal complications, both for local law enforcement and the state.
Defenders of the bill point out that the suspect must be stopped, detained, or arrested before the officer can demand his "papers." But it is no secret that if a cop wants to make a traffic stop, he will find cause to do so.
SB 20 comes out of that dark place in the soul of the state that has given us generations of racial segregation, capital punishment, chain gang laws, and other uncivilized practices.
Like those other laws, SB 20 will ultimately be as evil as whatever problem it was meant to fix. And like those other laws, it will be an insult to the highest principles of the nation. In a state famous for its abuse of powerless minorities, it seems that Hispanics are now the objects of our worst impulses.
The cruelty of this bill is exceeded only by its irony. The fact is the immigrant population in South Carolina is declining, due, in large part, to the lagging economy. Fewer jobs means fewer immigrants, and the Palmetto State has an unemployment rate of more than 10 percent. So what is the urgency in putting out the dragnet for aliens now?
If it is a fear of crime that motivates this misguided legislation, South Carolinians can breathe easily knowing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are arresting and deporting more illegals under the Obama administration than ICE ever did under the Bush administration, according to Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. Furthermore, Middleton said, harsh attempts to control illegal immigration will make victims of crime unwilling to seek help from police, thus breeding a culture of lawlessness in the immigrant community, which will inevitably spill out into the larger society.
There are other problems with the law, Middleton said. As we cut back on law enforcement in this epic budget crisis, we are simultaneously creating more chores for police to perform. "This law will divert law enforcement from more serious crime," she said. "It is not a smart use of resources."
And speaking of resources, South Carolina passed legislation a couple of years ago requiring employers to check the immigration status of new hires. The state does not have the manpower to properly enforce that law. How does it intend to enforce this one?
Another irony is that an increasing number of immigrants — legal and otherwise — come from Eastern Europe and look like, well, those folks who dressed up in their Confederate finery and staged a Secession Gala last December. If "looking like an illegal immigrant" is the rationalization for demanding a person's papers, no son of a Confederate veteran may soon be safe in South Carolina. (I hope Glenn McConnell, one of the sponsors of this bill and the state's most famous Confederate re-enactor, is reading this.)
Local immigration attorney Marco Torres sides with Middleton in thinking the law is a waste of time and resources. "There are a lot of issues in this law that are already covered in federal law," he said, "and we are just creating another burden for police.
"Coming from my perspective as an immigration attorney, I think this is a federal issue," he added. "What we don't need is a patchwork of state laws regulating immigration."
I predict that this bill will become law, because it appeals to the ugly fears and fantasies of white South Carolinians. And I predict that, like Arizona, we will land in federal court, fighting another losing battle in defense of our ill-advised, ill-begotten laws.