By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina is barred from enforcing several key parts of its new law aimed at curbing illegal immigration, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, making the state the latest to see such efforts halted by the courts.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel temporarily blocked parts of South Carolina's measure. He ruled the federal government has exclusive constitutional authority to regulate immigration and the state's law would disrupt federal enforcement operations.
The U.S. Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups had sued to keep some aspects of the law from going into effect on January 1.
The judge said South Carolina could not require police officers to check the immigration status of a person they stop for even a minor traffic violation if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.
This "state-mandated scrutiny is without consideration of federal enforcement priorities and unquestionably vastly expands the persons targeted for immigration enforcement action," Gergel said.
Gergel also barred South Carolina from making it a felony for anyone knowingly to harbor or transport an undocumented person.
The state cannot require immigrants to carry federal alien registration documents because such registration is under the exclusive control of the federal government, the judge said.
South Carolina is among states that have enacted tough laws against illegal immigration in the past two years, citing inaction by the federal government that has left a void in immigration policy.
But federal judges have consistently blocked the attempts, halting key parts of other immigration laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana. The fight over the Arizona law will go before the U.S. Supreme Court next year.
In a related matter on Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, rejected requests to put on hold its review of the immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia pending the resolution of the Arizona case.
South Carolina lawmakers' disagreement with federal immigration enforcement does not give the state the right to "adopt its own immigration policy to supplant the policy of the national government," Gergel said.
There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jerry Norton and Bill Trott)