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Groups sue to halt South Carolina's immigration law

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday to block South Carolina's new immigration law, the latest court challenge against a state crackdown on illegal immigrants.

The suit contends the law is unconstitutional, invites racial profiling and interferes with federal law, according to a statement by the coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center.

"We're very concerned about the impact this law will have not only on immigrant communities in South Carolina but on people of color in general," said NILC attorney Nora Preciado.

"South Carolina's (law), like some of the other laws that have passed in other states and are under legal challenge, would allow the police to investigate the immigration status of people that they come into contact with on a daily basis."

The South Carolina measure, set to take effect on January 1, requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally after first stopping them for another offense.

The law makes it a crime to knowingly transport or harbor an illegal immigrant, and it sets up a special unit within the state police to deal with immigration issues and serve as a liaison between local authorities and federal officials.

Under the new law, employers will be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the citizenship status of employees and job applicants and will face penalties for knowingly employing illegal immigrants.

"As the daughter of immigrants who came to this country legally, Governor (Nikki) Haley understands that no American value is more sacred than the rule of law. That's what this is about -- nothing more, nothing less," Haley's spokesman Rob Godfrey said.

A federal judge in Alabama last month upheld key provisions of that state's anti-illegal immigration law, a ruling that advocates say has resulted in immigrants living in fear or fleeing the state.

Judges have blocked parts of laws enacted in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana aimed at trying to deter illegal immigrants from coming to those states.

Conservatives complain the federal government has failed to sufficiently stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, forcing states to take action.

There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, including between 30,000 and 75,000 in South Carolina, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

"I'm absolutely sick and tired of us pretending that we have a federal immigration policy when I don't believe we do," Republican state Senator Larry Grooms, a primary sponsor of the South Carolina measure, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Grooms said he expects the state to succeed in court, rejecting charges that the law would lead to racial profiling.

"We learned from the attempts of other states how to craft this so it would not be in conflict with federal law," he said.

(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Greg McCune)

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