Immigration reform a major concern as lawmakers prefile bills for next session

COLUMBIA -- Immigration reform is at the top of many state lawmakers' lists, and reform appears likely during this year's session.

Wednesday marked the first deadline for lawmakers to prefile bills for the upcoming session that begins Jan. 8.

Bills for the S.C. Senate were available online Wednesday. House bills won't be available until today.

Three of 32 Senate bills deal with immigration changes. Highlights include:

• Giving the state more control in deciding what government services to provide or deny undocumented immigrants;

• Requiring all state agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles to offer its services, publications and videos in an English-only format unless otherwise required by federal law; and

• Requiring employers and contractors to verify that new employees are in the country legally by running their Social Security numbers through a federal database; also, establishing a SLED unit to investigate and arrest those who prepare and sell fraudulent IDs.

State Sen. Dick Elliott, D-Horry, one the bill's sponsors, said the long-term cost of illegal immigrants in the state could be catastrophic if the issue isn't addressed now.

"When they get old and they're in nursing homes, imagine the burden to taxpayers unless we begin dealing with the problem today," Elliott said. "That will far outweigh the cost of food stamps and other subsidies that we are giving today."

But some South Carolina residents such as Aleida Santana of Columbia say some of the proposed changes such as requiring all documents be in English could inadvertently hurt Spanish-speakers who are in the country legally.

"There are a lot of people here from Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. They're here legally, people like my parents and in-laws who served this country in the military," Santana said, whose son is also in the Army. "Their English isn't perfect. We do a disservice to those older people who are here legally by requiring everything be written in English. South Carolina has to wake up."

While the Legislature failed to pass any immigration reform last year, it's likely some level of immigration reform will be created in 2008.

This fall, a Senate Illegal Immigration Reform Study Committee held public meetings across the state to hear people's concerns, and hundreds have attended them.

Also, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce last month reversed its opposition to state-level immigration reform and has said it will work with the Legislature in 2008.

Last session, the Senate passed the S.C. Illegal Immigration Reform Act, but the House never moved on the bill. The bill could be acted on this session. In the House, at least 19 immigration-related bills were filed. Many of them overlapped measures included in the Senate's bill.