Immigration law could imperil citizens abroad

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s tough new immigration law already has damaged the country’s reputation with other nations and could also endanger U.S. citizens as they travel abroad, contends a top-ranking U.S. State Department official.


“Act No. 69 undermines the diverse immigration administration and enforcement tools made available to federal authorities and establishes a distinct state-specific immigration policy, driven by an individual state’s own policy choices, which clashes with U.S. foreign affairs priorities, risks significant harassment of foreign nationals, and has the potential to harm a wide range of delicate U.S. foreign relations interests,” Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said in a statement.

Burns, who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, is a career diplomat and foreign service officer who said he is tasked with helping the secretary of state form U.S. foreign policy. His statement was filed as part of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley over the state’s new law, which takes effect Jan. 1. Prosecutors want to halt the law while their lawsuit challenging its constitutionality moves forward. A hearing is set for Dec. 19.

The measure requires law enforcement officers to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. Justice officials are challenging similar laws in other states.

Burns wrote in court documents that the law interferes with federal authorities’ jurisdiction over immigration and could subject U.S. citizens to retaliation when they travel.

“U.S. immigration laws must always be adopted and administered with sensitivity to the potential for reciprocal or retaliatory treatment of U.S. nationals by foreign governments,” Burns wrote, warning that the law risks antagonizing governments into not wanting to help the U.S. with foreign policy issues, collaborate on trade agreements or cooperate in counterterrorism activity. The law also undermines the U.S. standing in multilateral bodies, Burns wrote, and can confuse other countries that see it as evidence of the country’s inconsistency on immigration policies.

In their own court filings, South Carolina officials have said that the federal government “lacks statutory authorization to bring this action” and criticized the U.S. Justice Department for waiting so long to bring its lawsuit.

“By creating a patchwork of immigration regimes, states such as South Carolina make it substantially more difficult for foreign nationals to understand their rights and obligations, rendering them more vulnerable to discrimination and harassment,” Burns wrote.

Some of those other countries have already weighed in against South Carolina’s new law. Sixteen Latin American and Caribbean nations have filed “friend of the court” briefs in the lawsuit, voicing fears the new law would lead to their citizens facing state-sanctioned discrimination.