South Carolina's politicians have never been afraid to drag our state into fights in which it is hopelessly overmatched both on principal and on substance. I could point to secession 151 years ago as the prime example, but let's keep it to the last 70.
This state has been fighting a rearguard action against modernity for generations, both in Congress and the federal courts, working mightily to preserve the tradition of lynching from federal "overreaching," working to keep women out of the Citadel, and working to keep our schools, lunch counters, and entire society segregated to mention just a few of its favorite causes. Right now it is embroiled in a major lawsuit to have the 2010 Affordable Care Act overturned. Most constitutional scholars think that this is another lost cause our leaders have tied our fortunes to.
It is tempting to think — indeed, many South Carolinians do think — of our state as a knight errant, battling dragons and evildoers in pursuit of some mythic, ineffable ideal. But in fact, most modern residents of our state look back on these past battles with mixed feelings, if not outright shame. Most of the "ideals" we have defended over the years were anything but noble, anything but idealistic. Our belligerent nature has cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, in social and economic development, and in sheer embarrassment. But we never seem to learn.
Now the good people of South Carolina have found a new existential threat, a new reason to gird their loins and put on the warpaint. I speak of illegal immigration.
The presence of undocumented aliens in the country and the state is a problem, but it touches a xenophobic nerve in this insular state, as demonstrated by Congressman Jeff Duncan's (R-Third District) recent remark to a group at Furman University: "It's kind of like having a house ... taking the door off the hinges and allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal, or just somebody that's hungry, or somebody that wants to do your dishes for you, to come in. And you can't say, 'No you can't come in.' ... We're giving those benefits away, which we earn as citizens of this nation, of being legalized citizens."
Duncan's remarks are similar to ones made by then-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, comparing poor people to animals in last year's Republican gubernatorial primary race: "My grandmother ... told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
In response to this influx of "animals" and "vagrants," our General Assembly passed one of the harshest immigration-control laws in the country in June. Whether it is necessary is highly debatable.
Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are deporting illegals in record numbers (392,000 last year), and the charge that illegal immigrants have created a crime wave in the state is not born out by statistics despite the numbers being recklessly thrown around by Republican politicians.
This is what is not debatable: The law has gotten the state dragged into court again, and the plaintiffs include the ACLU, 16 sovereign nations, and the U.S. Justice Department. When the dust settles, it is almost certain that the state immigration law — or most of it — will be thrown out. Under the Constitution, regulating immigration is a federal responsibility and cannot be preempted by the states. I dare say this fact is known by most first-year law students and should have been known by members of the General Assembly, to say nothing of state Attorney General Alan Wilson. Now they will learn that lesson in federal court, but how much will it cost this cash-strapped state to defend itself in this most recent fool's errand?
And how much will it cost local law enforcement agencies to stop and hold suspected illegals, and in what better ways might they be using their time and resources? How many lawsuits will these agencies face for profiling suspected illegals when they were only following the mandate of this ill-gotten law?
How much are we likely to see our food prices rise because of a lack of agricultural labor? In Alabama and Georgia, which have passed draconian immigration-control acts, immigrants — legal and illegal — are fleeing the states by the thousands, leaving crops unharvested.
This is clearly a case of the cure being worse than the disease, but South Carolina has a long history of rushing to extreme measures and suffering the consequences later.