Immigration Enforcement Goes To The Next Level In South Carolina

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The rubber is about to hit the road on workplace immigration enforcement in South Carolina.

Starting July 1, state officials will be auditing businesses with fewer than 100 employees. That affects an estimated 110,000 businesses across the state. Compare that with the 2,200 businesses with 100 or more employees that came under the S.C. Immigration Reform Act last year.

Not surprisingly, state officials report a 94 percent compliance rate on documenting the legal status of employees at these larger businesses. They don’t expect to find that rate of compliance at the smaller businesses. Those businesses are less likely to have human resources departments or company lawyers and more likely to hire workers with inadequate or fraudulent documentation.

The initial effort will focus on industries that tend to employ foreign workers, such as landscaping companies, farms, restaurants, hotels, construction firms and golf courses. That’s a smart use of resources.

Jobs are what draw many illegal immigrants here. If employers feel the pain of immigration enforcement, they’ll try hard not to hire undocumented workers, and many of the costs and problems associated with illegal immigration will go away, too.

Under state law, employers must use one of two methods to verify the legal status of new workers. They can require employees to provide a South Carolina driver’s license or identification card, or a motor vehicle license from one of 26 other states whose requirements are as strict as South Carolina’s. The second option is to use the Department of Homeland Security’s online database, E-verify, to check new hires.

Companies face a maximum fine of $1,000 per violation and risk losing their business license if they are found to have knowingly hired an illegal alien. Businesses first have a chance to fix any problems. Labor officials also are required to notify federal immigration officials when illegal immigrants are found in the workplace.

Some local companies complained last year about inconsistent or confusing aspects of enforcement. One employer said he was told that if he used E-verify to check the status of one new hire, he must use it for all — even though the state law gives us a choice on the verification method. Let’s hope state officials have worked out issues like this before they tackle this next round of audits.

Beaufort County’s audit of about 3,790 companies doing business in unincorporated areas of the county is nearing completion. By the end of June, about 3,000 will have been checked for documentation on employees and gross sales reported to the county, said county administrator Gary Kubic. The county hired Advance Point Global of Hilton Head Island to do the work. At the end of 2009, auditors had checked more than 2,200 businesses, turning names of employees suspected of illegal activity to the Sheriff’s Office for further investigation. Sheriff P.J. Tanner said that in the past year, 42 warrants had been issued and 38 arrests made, most on charges of forgery.

These state and local audits, of course, require money. The county spent about $500,000 on its program in 2008 and 2009.About $750,000 was budgeted last year for the first stage of state enforcement, and $2 million is to be set aside this year.

Money has been a problem for at least one provision of the state law. It requires theSouth Carolina Law Enforcement Division to enter into an agreement with the federal government to address enforcement of federal immigration laws by state and local law enforcement agencies, training of state and local law enforcement, detention of illegal immigrants and their removal from the state.

But to date, no agreement has been reached, the Greenville News reports, and no funding found. Without state or federal funding, criminal enforcement can’t begin. State Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens said that neither the governor’s office nor SLED had asked for funding for the program.

Ben Fox, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, told the newspaper that federal help had been sought on training and other issues, but when the state contacted then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, it was told the proposal couldn’t be considered because of limited resources and limited prison space in South Carolina.

Which leads us to the true source of solving illegal immigration issues — the federal government. No action has come from that quarter. In the meantime, we’ll see what the state can do.

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