By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday blocked two key parts of Georgia's crackdown on illegal immigration, just as the governor in neighboring South Carolina signed a measure to impose new immigration restrictions there.
The actions are the latest illustration of a familiar trend in the United States, as lawmakers in a number of states seek to curb illegal immigration only to be thwarted by the courts.
Judge Thomas Thrash issued a preliminary injunction halting Georgia from authorizing police officers to question criminal suspects about their immigration status.
He also blocked portions of the legislation that would make it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport an illegal immigrant.
"The apparent legislative intent is to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia," Thrash wrote in his ruling.
Civil rights groups argue the Georgia law is unconstitutional because it preempts federal enforcement of immigration law. Thrash ruled that the law's opponents are likely to win their constitutional challenge.
He said allowing the law to take effect would subject people to lengthy and intrusive immigration status investigations during many routine encounters with law enforcement.
"The individual plaintiffs have shown a realistic threat of injury," he said.
Governor Nathan Deal's office said the state will appeal.
"The state of Georgia narrowly tailored its immigration law to conform with existing federal law and court rulings," the governor's office said in a statement. "Georgians can rest assured that this battle doesn't end here."
SOUTH CAROLINA LAW SIGNED
Georgia is the latest state to have tough immigration legislation blocked in court. Courts have also halted key provisions of laws passed by Arizona, Indiana and Utah.
Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, which brought the suit challenging Georgia's law, said he was "very glad the worst parts" of it would not be going into effect on July 1.
"This is now the fourth law of this type that has been blocked by the courts," Jadwat told Reuters by telephone.
"These laws have universally failed the judicial test, and so we think that sends a clear message to the remaining states that might be considering something of this sort."
In South Carolina, the ACLU vowed to file suit against that state's freshly signed illegal immigration bill.
Republican Governor Nikki Haley on Monday gave her official approval for the law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest for another reason and suspect may be in the country illegally.
"This is not an anti-tolerance bill. This is not a bill that pushes away one group for another group," said Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants. "This is a bill that enforces laws ... We support legal immigration."
The new law, due to take effect on January 1, also requires employers in South Carolina to use the federal E-Verify system to check citizenship status of employees and job applicants. Penalties for knowingly employing illegal immigrants will include suspension and revocation of a business license by the state.
The law creates a $1.3 million Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit within the state public safety department to serve as a liaison between local police and federal immigration officials.
"This law undermines the efforts made to overcome our state's shameful history of discrimination, inviting racial profiling of anyone who looks or sounds 'foreign,'" said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
DREAM ACT ENDORSED
Even as some states seek to enact new restrictions on illegal immigration, several officials in Washington endorsed the DREAM Act on Monday, the day before a Senate subcommittee hearing on that bill which would make it easier for certain illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and military expert Margaret Stock all offered support for the act, under which approximately 80,000 young people would be eligible for citizenship.
Duncan will testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday morning.
An estimated 65,000 young people graduate from high school in the U.S. each year unable to work, go to college or join the military due to their immigration status, according to a statement following the officials' news conference.
The DREAM Act would allow children of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, graduated from high school, and are of "good moral character" the chance to become citizens by pursuing higher education or serving in the U.S. military, the press release said.
The DREAM Act passed the House but failed in the Senate last year in the previous Congress.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Harriet McLeod and Molly O'Toole; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton)