The Justice Department sued Monday to block South Carolina’s new immigration crackdown law, making it the third state to face such a challenge from the Obama administration, which argues only the federal government can decide immigration enforcement.
Justice officials said they will request an injunction to block the law from going into effect on Jan. 1.
“It is understandable that communities remain frustrated with the broken immigration system, but a patchwork of state laws is not the solution and will only create problems,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. “We will continue to monitor the impact these laws might have on our communities and will evaluate each law to determine whether it conflicts with the federal government’s enforcement responsibilities.”
Courts have split on the two previous cases. Judges out West halted the stricter parts of Arizona’s pioneering law, enacted last year, but judges in the South have allowed at least some of a new Alabama law to be enforced.
State enforcement of immigration laws has become an incendiary political issue.
A number of states have acted to create their own criminal penalties for those in the country illegally, arguing they are compelled to fill the gap the federal government has left.
The crux of most of the state laws is to allow police to be able to check the immigration status of those they come in contact with during the regular performance of their duties.
Several other states, however, have gone the other direction, declaring themselves sanctuaries from some enforcement policies.
One state, Utah, has even enacted its own version of a guest-worker program, though it also gave police expanded enforcement powers, too.
The Obama administration so far has only filed lawsuits against the states that are cracking down on illegal immigration. The Justice Department said it is still reviewing Utah’s law, as well as two other crackdown laws passed in Indiana and Georgia. Those two laws have been blocked in response to interest group lawsuits.
Republicans in Congress say President Obama’s priorities are wrong.
“The Obama administration continues to waste time and resources suing states for enforcing immigration laws rather than focusing on their duty to carry out all of our laws,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican.
He and his fellow Republicans argue the administration is giving “amnesty” to illegal immigrants by setting priorities that make it unlikely most illegal immigrants would face deportation once they are living and working in the U.S.
The administration acknowledges it has changed deportation priorities away from rank-and-file illegal immigrants, but points to the record number of deportations last year — most of them either with criminal records or having established themselves as repeat immigration violators — as evidence the new priorities are working.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said the department can only deport about 400,000 persons a year, out of an estimated population of about 11 million illegal immigrants.