COLUMBIA -- South Carolina legislators are pushing a bill to cut workers' compensation benefits for illegal immigrants in an effort to strengthen what's already one of the nation's toughest laws aimed at keeping those workers off state payrolls.
On Wednesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee debated a bill that says illegal immigrants can have medical costs covered but would be barred from collecting disability benefits if they're hurt on the job. One of the panel's members said he's also looking at denying illegal immigrants access to state courts.
None of that sits well with one of the state's Hispanic advocates.
"We can be nannies. We can be translators. ... We build houses. We build hospitals," said Diana Salazar, president of the Latino Association of Charleston. "But we cannot get benefits if we get hurt on the job because we don't have a piece of paper? ... I think it's unfair."
Salazar wasn't alone in questioning the legislation proposed only a year after a new law required employers to ensure newly hired workers are in the country legally. Those that don't get fined; those who knowingly hiring illegal immigrants will have their businesses shut down temporarily.
"I think the attempt is to punish a company that hires illegal aliens," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, before the panel delayed acting on the bill to allow more time to gather information and testimony.
Hutto said the legislation would end up leaving hospitals and doctors with unpaid bills and could end up forcing employers to fire legal workers to cover settlement costs. "Everybody gets punished."
Insurance companies are the only winners, Hutto said, because they will pay less in claims. He called on the panel not to "penalize the doctors, the hospitals, the injured worker and then give a windfall to the insurance company."
Although Hutto said workplace accidents aren't tied to someone's immigration status, a 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found Hispanic workers die more often on the job and South Carolina had the nation's highest death rate. Observers link that to the more risky jobs Hispanics tend to take and safety problems tied to language and literacy issues.
Gary Thibault, executive director of the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Commission, said there is no data available showing how frequently immigrant status becomes an issue in compensation claims. In most cases, Thibault noted, courts have ruled in favor of giving benefits if there's no explicit state law limiting payments to illegal immigrants.
However, Thibault pointed to a well-known case involving benefit disputes.
In 2003, two Mexican brothers, ages 15 and 17, were killed when an electrical trench they were working in collapsed. Their parents could have received a $186,670 settlement, but state law already limits workers' comp death benefits on foreign workers to half of what a U.S. or Canadian citizen can receive. The brothers' parents settled for $100,000. Thibault said that part of the law is seldom used.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, questioned whether illegal immigrants should see benefits at all.
Back home, Davis said, "there's a great frustration that a lot of illegal immigrants enjoy public benefits to the same extent as those who are there legally" from schools to medical care.
"In that list of things that we as citizens enjoy is access to our courts," Davis said. "And I think that there is merit in having a debate over whether or not someone who is here illegally and who knows he or she is here illegally -- whether or not they're entitled to the same access to our court system, to the same benefits that a citizen would be entitled to."
Davis said he's researching law on limiting court access.
"That's unfair," Salazar said. "Again, we're talking about humans that work and contribute to the economy in South Carolina. Give me a break."