Letters to the Editor

Immigration bill misguided

The effort in the S.C. General Assembly to enact its own Arizona-style law aimed at ridding the state of illegal immigrants is meeting with some opposition from state and local law enforcement agencies, as well it should. City and county council members and local taxpayers also ought to consider the degree to which this bill could interfere with critical public safety priorities set by local governments and the fiscal impact it could have on already fiscally-strapped local governments.

The bill is an unfunded mandate on local government. Whether one agrees or not that local law enforcement agencies should take on responsibilities that are traditionally the province of federal immigration agencies, once local governments are compelled to assume that responsibility, there will inevitably be a fiscal impact on them. To the degree that members of the General Assembly rail about the cost of mandates put on them by the federal government - and rightfully so - they should be equally as zealous in protecting local governments from that same type of abuse by state government. State legislators need to fund the provision of such add-on services that they wish to impose on local governments, and the enforcement of federal immigration law is indisputably one of those add-ons.

I am also uncomfortable with a provision in the bill which would allow a civil action to be filed against a local government by a resident of the jurisdiction who perceives a given political subdivision as acting in violation of the law and would give the circuit court the authority to enter a judgment against the local government, a potential cost as well. Notwithstanding efforts to tone down the impact of this provision, it remains inappropriate and has the potential for abuse. I think that subjecting local governments to the potential liability of this provision is an irresponsible and consciously contrived punitive threat to get local governments to do something their better judgment and preferred policy option would militate against. Therefore, the General Assembly should indemnify local officials and agencies against actions that may arise out of their enforcement of the law, both as to those who might file suit claiming their rights were violated and as to those who file suit because they think the law is not being enforced properly.

Local law enforcement agencies already handle criminal cases involving illegal immigrants, and the mandates in this proposed legislation will impinge upon, if not reorder, the public safety priorities that local government officials have set for their communities. Thus, in addition to the fiscal impact, there will be a policy impact as well. Time and resources are finite things in the best of economic times, and police chiefs, sheriffs and members of councils, through their budgets, policies, and administrative decisions, have established public safety priorities and routines based upon community needs and what they can afford. These routines include as a matter of course enforcement of the criminal law against illegal aliens. Given the choice between having local law enforcement officers devote their time to criminal law enforcement or the mandate in this bill to pursue civil immigration enforcement, the former is the more prudent use of resources and of the officers' time on duty. The fact of the matter is that if a law enforcement agency cannot perform function A without taking time and/or money away from function B, one of the two has to be sacrificed. If A is civil immigration enforcement and B is general criminal law enforcement, it defies logic to require a law enforcement agency to do A instead of B.

It is a reasonable and justifiable response for individuals and state legislatures to bring pressure to bear on the powers that be in the federal government to solve this problem, both the immediate and long term aspects. However, there is no proper lead role in the solution of this immigration problem for state and local agencies and officials any more than there is a proper lead role for those same local officials in national defense. The proposed bill is not a solution, and it may well make things worse for local governments. Perhaps in the practice of making laws, we need a maxim akin to "first, do no harm."

The writer lives in Conway.