State Chamber of Commerce backs immigration reform bill

The S.C. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed a state Senate immigration reform bill, a move that could boost passage of a law during the next legislative session.

However, the federal government's failure to implement immigration reform means the state must forge ahead, chamber spokeswoman Marcia Purday said.

"We still believe it's a federal issue and should be worked out on the federal level," Purday said, "but we realize we have to work with the state since the federal government didn't work out a solution."

The endorsement is a reversal from the Chamber's previous stance in which it implored state lawmakers to back off attempts at immigration reform. Several measures in the bill would impose mandates on businesses to verify worker identification and penalize those who hire illegal immigrants.

In May, the chamber called a news conference to oppose immigration bills circulating through the General Assembly. At the time, the business leaders said proposed state laws would put the burden of enforcement on the business community.

The chamber's position switch was revealed earlier this week during a public hearing in Charleston. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been hosting hearings across the state to get feedback on its immigration reform bill introduced in January.

While the chamber stood with a coalition of business groups in May, it did not consult with them before announcing its endorsement of the state bill.

One of those groups said it is not siding with the chamber.

The Farm Bureau will withhold its endorsement until it sees what new provisions are included in the bill when the General Assembly starts its 2008 session in January, said Reggie Hall, the Farm Bureau's educational program director.

The Farm Bureau doesn't want state law to lock out the thousands of guest workers who pick peaches, plant trees and handle livestock, Hall said.

"People say guest workers take jobs away from Americans, but farmer after farmer after farmer will tell you, 'We can't find them,"' Hall said.

The state's immigration reform efforts are on the agenda at next week's S.C. Hospitality Association board meeting, said Tom Sponseller, the association's president.

Sponseller said the hospitality association's main concern is a provision that would require businesses to participate in a federal database that matches employees' names and Social Security numbers. That system has been flawed, but Sponseller said the federal government had made improvements this year.

"We are working with the bill's authors to make sure that businesses who use the database are not harmed if the database is wrong," he said. "As long as the business has made every best attempt to verify legal status, it won't be held accountable."

While the chamber now supports the legislature's efforts, it wants some measures added to the bill -- mainly that cities and counties should not be allowed to establish their own immigration ordinances, Purday said.

"It really impacts the prosperity of business in this state if businesses have to keep up with different sets of rules," she said.