Commentary: Immigration enforcement shouldn't fall to local police

The nationalization of South Carolina’s political agenda may be no better illustrated than by the anti-immigration bill the Senate passed last week. Even the federal health law that is consuming some legislators at least is something that our state will have to be involved in implementing. But immigration is a federal issue that our Legislature already addressed just three years ago, passing what was widely hailed as one of the toughest laws in the nation.

Unfortunately for those legislators who wanted to impress constituents fixated on this issue, there were no massive demonstrations against that law, no president ordering his attorney general to stop its enforcement, no lawsuits. And so when the Arizona legislature passed its own anti-immigration law to all that fanfare, our legislators got jealous. They wanted the same attention. They wanted to say that they had passed a law that was as tough as the Arizona law.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a terrible thing — we’re not sure it’s an awful idea for police to check the immigration status of people whose legality in this country they have a legitimate reason to question — if our state truly were being overrun by illegal immigrants who won’t be driven out by the 2008 law. Or if the Legislature didn’t have a boatload of actual problems that it ought to be using its time and problem-solving skills to address. Or if our state had plenty of money to hire a whole new state police unit to go around checking the immigration status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally.

As flabbergasting as it is that the Senate, in a year such as this, would vote to create that new state immigration police force without a clue of how much it would cost, what’s even more disturbing (though not surprising) is that senators also plan to hijack local police to do their bidding.

Normally, we give a huge degree of discretion to police to decide which laws to enforce and which to ignore, or at least not make a priority. For instance, some police agencies are extremely aggressive about enforcing traffic laws; others figure that’s the Highway Patrol’s job. Communities with higher violent crime rates might decide to devote their limited resources almost exclusively to violent crimes, while getting around to petty theft if they have time.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.thestate.com.