Immigration could be hot topic during state's next legislative session

Immigration reform at the national level is dead for now, but South Carolina lawmakers say bills aimed at tackling the issue at the state level might be the hottest topic during the next legislative session.

The state Senate passed a bill last year that proposes crackdowns on identity theft and businesses that hire illegal immigrants, but the House never took up the issue. The House also considered several bills that failed.

Now, with passions still flaring from the debate on immigration in Congress and a chorus of concern from many areas in the state, some lawmakers say they will work on state-level legislation.

"I think it will be the most important topic we take up early in the session," said Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, who chaired a study group last summer that looked at statewide legislation on illegal immigration.

"The people of South Carolina are demanding that we take action, and rightfully so."

After the collapse of the federal legislation, advocates on both sides of the issue predict the result will be a patchwork of state and local laws across the country.

"If Congress is going to abdicate its responsibilities, then states and cities are going to jump in," said John Gay, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association and the leader of a business coalition that backed the failed Senate bill. "One of the arguments for opposing state and local proposals is that Congress is addressing it. We don't have that anymore."

Possible migration

South Carolina lawmakers face another potential problem. Most of the new illegal-immigration laws Georgia passed last year -- considered some of the toughest in the country -- took effect earlier this summer. That means South Carolina could become the new destination for many of the undocumented workers who would have gone to Georgia, said Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton.

"Our schools or health facilities simply can't take the burden," he said.

No exact statistics exist on the number of illegal immigrations in the state, but a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study estimated that, out of an estimated 12 million across the country, between 35,000 and 75,000 live in South Carolina -- an increase from previous estimates.

As of April, legislators in all 50 states had introduced at least 1,169 bills and resolutions on immigration in 2007, more than twice the number introduced last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many fell by the wayside, but others, including a controversial measure approved by the Beaufort County Council calling for audits of employee records of businesses, became law, underscoring the public's growing impatience with federal inaction.

Ritchie's bill that passed the S.C. Senate focused on penalizing fraudulent business activity, cracking down on identity theft, and requiring contractors and people doing business with the state to demonstrate they have a legal workforce. The bill also called for criminal penalties for businesses dealing with illegal immigrants.

At the national level, opponents fiercely attacked the immigration legislation in Congress, largely due to a provision that would have provided a path to citizenship for the undocumented workers already in the country.

But states don't have to deal with that issue, legislators said.

"I think there are some people who I'm sure that's going to be a real top issue for them," said Rep. Richard Chalk, R-Hilton Head.