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South Carolina, rights groups settle immigration law challenge

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - In a victory for immigrant rights supporters, South Carolina said on Monday it would no longer defend a key part of a 2011 law that required police to check the immigration status of people during stops.

State officials and a coalition of immigrant rights groups have agreed to settle a legal dispute over the law centering on its "show me your papers" section.

In court documents filed on Monday in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said the state interprets the provision to mean that police cannot detain someone solely to check their papers after the original reason for the stop has ended.

South Carolina's law also does not allow police to jail a person simply to determine the person's immigration status or to arrest a person believed to be in the country unlawfully, state Solicitor General Robert D. Cook wrote in a letter to Judge Richard M. Gergel.

"This opinion is very helpful to limit that kind of police misconduct," said Andre Segura, a staff attorney with the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. The project had asked the state to clarify what police officers could and could not do.

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Monday that it had joined the South Carolina agreement.

Judge Gergel's block of key parts of South Carolina's immigration law, including the "show me your papers" provision, was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wilson said in court documents that the state disagrees with those rulings, but that it would not continue to fight them.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the "show me your papers" part of Arizona's tough immigration law was constitutional.

South Carolina is one of five states that modeled their laws after Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants. The others are Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Utah.

Alabama reached a similar agreement last year with those who sued over its immigration law.

Court cases are in progress in Arizona to clarify the state immigration law, and in Utah, where the law remains blocked by a judge, Segura said.

"We've definitely noticed a sea change from three years ago when states were tripping over themselves trying to pass more divisive immigration laws," Segura said. "Since 2011, no state or local jurisdiction has passed an anti-immigrant law."

"There's been a big wave of pro-immigrant issues," he said. "In 2013, we saw a slew of states granting driver's licenses (to immigrants) and granting in-state tuition (to immigrants)."

(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)

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