South Carolina immigration law starts new era of racial profiling

New America Media Editor's Note: The battle over immigration is now being waged at the state level. Since Arizona's immigration law SB 1070 went into effect one year ago, five states -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah -- have passed similar laws.

South Carolina's new immigration law, SB 20, gives law enforcement officers discretion to ask for proof of citizenship or legal residence based solely on "reasonable suspicion" if they stop, detain, or arrest someone for a criminal offense. The new measure creates an Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit that would help police determine immigration status. The law also requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to determine whether job applicants are legal residents. Gov. Nikki Haley signed SB 20 into law on June 27. The measure is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

South Carolina's Latino population growth over the last decade was the fastest in the United States, increasing 148 percent to almost a quarter-million people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

New America Media interviewed community leaders and ethnic media journalists in South Carolina to learn the impact of these laws at the frontlines of immigration's new battlefield. Following are some of their observations.

Lisa de Armas, Director, El Informador (Mount Pleasant, S.C.)

In North Charleston, the fear is a lot more exaggerated because that's where the bulk of the Latino population is. They have been extremely fearful from what I've seen and heard. Some people don't even want to come out of their homes; some don't even want to report crime. There's a fear of being arrested; people are not driving.

The kids are not even playing in the neighborhood.

They're targeting predominantly Latino areas. We hear about something happening every day. Some of our community leaders are getting calls three times a day about arrests. What is very astonishing is that the law hasn't even gone into effect yet.

We've acted as a liaison between the anti-immigration law and the community. We're interviewing people in the trenches of Columbia. We've been getting news feeds from Columbia and explaining the process of the legislation through South Carolina's House and Senate, and how exactly it works. As a result of putting that information out there, people have understood what's going on, when it's going to be implemented and how to prepare.

Carlos Puella, Editor-in-Chief, La Nación Hispana (Greenville, S.C.)

The sentiments are varied. Obviously, they're scared. They call the newspapers and radio about what's going to happen to them and their family. There are also people who are confident because they know organizations are going to sue the state over SB 20. If other states have stopped the provisions [of similar laws], people are confident that the same will happen in South Carolina.

I have not seen a stage of panic. However, I have seen people who are worried about the legislation. This new law requires a special unit of immigration-like police, but the state has no money for it. The state is in a grand deficit, and so people don't think the state will follow through with the law.

Life continues. Some are leaving, but people are still coming to South Carolina and looking for work and homes. What I have noticed has been that businesses have taken a hit, but I think it has largely to do with the economic crisis. I think the economic factor is the main reason for the drop in businesses and not necessarily the anti-immigration law.

Although there has been vandalism against churches, saying things like, "Mexicans, Go Home," it's very rare.

Diana Salazar, President, Latino Association of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.)

I've had a lot of phone calls about the law. There are fears about police officers who are anti-immigrant abusing their power. There's fear about the racial profiling that the law will open up. We're worried about police officers giving us respect when Latinos are driving.

Some businesses are closing and others are downgrading, but I want to blame it first on the economy. Afraid or not, the undocumented community is still working to maintain their families. However, there is concern about going out late at night. People are staying home in the evenings. I don't see anyone running from the state. If they're leaving, then they're going to other states.

We do have a lot of support from the non-Latino community, including the African-American community.

Tammy Besherse, Member, South Carolina Immigration Coalition, and Attorney, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center (Columbia, S.C.)

There was anti-immigration legislation passed in 2008, but the SB 20 law adds more teeth. There's a fear within the undocumented community, but even more so among legal residents because of the probability of racial profiling. We know there's an urgent need to go out there and educate people on their rights.

Our legal farm workers are thinking about leaving. SB 20 would require them to carry their documents proving their legal status at all times. They're afraid they might drop their documents on the farm and lose them or they may decide not to bring their documents and be profiled and detained.

With the influx of the Hispanic community we have seen a lot of hostility, especially in the Lowcountry area. We have white parents taking their kids out of schools because of the increase in Hispanic students in some schools.

It is very common in some areas for some police officers to sit and wait in Hispanic communities. Some communities are obviously in more fear than others. There tends to be more hostility in the upstate [Greenville] and the Lowcountry areas.

There has been an impact on the black-Latino relations in South Carolina. There is a percentage of blacks that believe Latinos are taking their jobs. Others wrongly believe Latinos are taking [too much in] social benefits, such as welfare. However, there are a couple black organizations that have voiced their opposition to the anti-immigration legislation in South Carolina. We are working on uniting more of the African-American community and the Latino community.

Jorge Leone, Executive Director, Acercamiento Hispano (Columbia, S.C.)

As an organization we are going to have to go out into the community and inform church and community leaders that they may be persecuted if they transport any undocumented immigrants because of this law.

If people are planning on leaving the state, they're going to go to other states where they don't feel like they're being persecuted. I don't think they're going to pack up and head back to their home country. A lot of them are accustomed to earning an American wage for their labor and would not be able to survive with the wage paid in their native countries.

It is a special time when the minorities should work together. It is a time when everyone should unite to better South Carolina.

Rep. Joseph Neal, South Carolina House; Member, Progressive Caucus and Legislative Black Caucus (Columbia, S.C.)

The anti-immigration bill is at its heart a racial profiling bill. It empowers police to stop anyone they think is an immigrant and ask for documentation, search and arrest that individual.

Similarly, we are also battling the warrant-and-search bill, which is another racial profiling bill disguised as law enforcement. That bill gives police the power to stop anyone they think is on probation or parole. The legislature has gone too far in pushing our constitutional rights.

I have seen two things as a result of the population shifts in South Carolina. The first have been efforts within the black community to reach out to the Latino community because they share a common interest in opposing some of the bills that affect both communities.

The second and biggest impact I have seen is on the legislature to pass laws to pressure Latinos out of the state. It is obvious the number of Latinos in South Carolina are growing. Thus, their power to change policy in the state is increasing, but there are those who don't want to see that happen.

Amanda Jackson, Outreach Director, Church World Service (Columbia, S.C.)

A lot of African Americans were upset and disappointed, especially in reference to the history of the state. The bill is a form of racial profiling, and the community is very aware of bills that target minorities. Although there haven't been any interethnic coalitions organizing against SB 20, there has been organizing around the voter ID bill, which is the larger umbrella of the racial profiling and discriminating bills like SB 20.

SB 20 is perceived as a strictly Latino issue and because so, it limits us geographically and doesn't allow us to think outside the box. We have a strong Asian community, Eastern European community, Latino community, and there are some Haitians. For the most part most people are unaware what minority groups make up the state. People can't get it out of their head that an immigrant is always Latino and therefore it makes it much more difficult to organize collectively as a community.

The impact on black-Latino relations is split up into generational levels. The little kids tend to not accept the difference between the cultures. There are those in their 20s and 30s who are supportive of the interracial relations, who are much more active. Then there is the older generation that recognizes there are discriminatory challenges but tend to be more observant and acknowledge the barriers.

Wendy Brinker Taylor, Executive Editor, South Carolina Black News(Columbia, S.C.)

Black and Latino communities unfortunately have often operated on their own agenda. There are a few groups that have done crossover interethnic organizing, but I'm disappointed with the lack of collaboration. In the past, immigration has been seen as a purely Latino issue, but I'm hopeful that we'll start crossing color lines and realize this is legalized racial profiling and affects all people of color.

Racial profiling seems so prominent in practices here in the state. It's almost a numbing effect after living in oppression for so long within the state. Racist attitudes have become so prevalent within the state and I believe the anti-immigration bill could be a great foundation to build race relations between the black and Latino communities.

This is legalized racial profiling, which black folks are no strangers to.