This article was originally posted at The State 

By Rev. Sandy Jones

The U.S. District Court’s order blocking key provisions of South Carolina’s extreme anti-immigrant law is a step toward what the election confirmed is America’s real aspiration and need: comprehensive federal immigration reform.

As a plaintiff in the case challenging S.20 of 2011, I’m proud that we’re turning back a law that’s doing our state moral, social and economic harm. The decision reaffirms a 2011 ruling that blocked provisions aimed at turning unlawful presence into a state crime and at criminalizing everyday activities such as renting an apartment to an undocumented immigrant. We’ve already seen how similar laws in Alabama and Arizona left crops rotting in fields, church pews empty and whole families in flight. So we can celebrate this decision, which moves us away from that destructive path.

But ahead of us lie more battles to contain the effects of the law, such as ensuring that alternatives to detention exist for people who may be ensnared by its papers-please provision. By letting stand the provision under which police check people’s immigration status, the court has invited future challenges involving lengthy detentions and other civil-rights issues. The potential for racial profiling is just one of the issues of concern.

In fact, S.20 is just a small aspect of a bigger, broken system. A recent visit to a court for immigrants drove home to me how harshly we as a nation are treating undocumented migrants, and how important it is for South Carolinians to speak up for comprehensive federal reform that includes alternatives to detention.

I visited Minnesota’s Bloomington immigration court late this summer as part of a delegation of Lutheran clergy. We’d gathered from around the nation to discuss immigration — how laws are affecting our congregations and, in some cases, harming our families. As I sat in that courtroom, what left a lasting impression on me was how our dysfunctional system inflicts human suffering.

Many of those appearing in such courts are brought from detention centers, where on any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement imprisons 34,000 people. This network of 260 federal, private, state and local jails gathers these people into one vast bin — in spite of the fact that many are refugees, asylum seekers or survivors of torture or human trafficking. This frequently cruel practice costs U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion annually, and South Carolinians roughly $3 million.

The immigration courts, which are crippled by a backlog, force migrants to wait an average of 526 days for their case to be complete. So a mother picked up under South Carolina’s papers-please provision may spend more than a year separated from her children. We’ve seen the final product, too. The Obama administration has been carrying out deportations in record numbers, and ICE reports deporting tens of thousands of parents with at least one U.S.-citizen child.

Sitting in that courtroom forced me to recall that protecting human rights is integral to our faith as Christians. In that light, I concluded, it’s urgent for America to implement comprehensive immigration reform that includes humane alternatives to detaining vulnerable migrants. Alternatives could significantly cut the price to taxpayers of $122 per detention bed per day. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service report “Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy” maps out how the federal government can lower its reliance on detention and treat people more humanely by developing its partnerships with nonprofit groups.

The federal court ruling was a good step for South Carolina, and points to the need for wider reform. For too long, the immigration debate has been left up to political pundits. It’s past time for all people — people of faith, people in our communities — to speak up. We need to roll back the rest of S.20 and create alternatives to detention as part of comprehensive federal immigration reform. Those reforms would benefit South Carolinians by being more in line with our values, more bearable at tax time and more based on practical solutions.

Rev. Jones is pastor and mission developer of the Iglesia Luterana Manantial de Vida in Columbia; contact her at

Photo by jimmywayne (CC BY NC-ND- 2.0)

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