COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - The epicenter of the fight over the nation's patchwork of immigration laws is not along the Mexico border -- it's happening in the Southeast.
The federal government is suing South Carolina to put a stop to the state's new immigration law which is one of the toughest in the nation. The feds are also challenging similar laws in Alabama and Arizona.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Monday the government wants a judge to stop enforcement of South Carolina's law that requires officers to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally following a traffic stop for something else. Justice Department officials say that diverts federal resources from high priority targets like terrorism, drug smuggling and gang activity.
Last week, Nettles met with state attorney general Alan Wilson on the issue. Nettles argues the law is unconstitutional and violates people's right to due process.
Wilson disagrees and says he's willing to take his fight for the state's immigration law as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We're trying to help the federal government do something that they are incapable of or failing to do right now and that's enforce immigration," said Wilson.
South Carolina's law takes effect in January 2012 and has been stirring controversy since the day it was signed in late June. Protestors stood in silence while Goveror Nikki Haley put pen to paper and made it official.
"What we are saying is this state can no longer afford to support people that don't come here the right way," said Haley in June. "And we are now going to do something about it."
Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, is now named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the federal government.Related Stories Haley signs SC immigration reform into law, opponents speak out Officials: new immigration unit a year away Justice, SC officials to meet on immigration law
Republican presidential candidates are now weighing in and are criticizing the Justice Department's lawsuit against South Carolina's illegal immigration law ahead of next week's debate on national security issues. The GOP hopefuls will debate national security issues Nov. 12 in Spartanburg.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement he supports the measure because the federal government isn't enforcing border laws.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said she supports Gov. Haley's efforts because President Obama has failed to achieve border security.
Critics of the state's immigration law worry that enforcing it will put a burden on the state's prison system and will lead to racial profiling, potentially impacting people who are in the country legally.
"Pulling someone over because they sound different or they look different is not an acceptable thing to do," said attorney general Alan Wilson. "And as the state's chief prosecuting officer I would never bring a case or allow a case to be brought that I can control that was brought based on that."
South Carolina's new immigration law takes effect January 1, so the court system will have little time to waste in working through the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also challenged the similar laws in other states, and several weeks ago sued to block the South Carolina law from taking effect.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)