State closer to tougher immigration legislation

COLUMBIA -- Hundreds of S.C. businesses would have to check all new workers against a federal database to screen out illegal immigrants under a tentative agreement reached Wednesday by a House and Senate committee.

Beginning Jan. 1, the law would apply to everyone from the construction companies building on USC's campus to landscapers mowing the grass at small-town city halls to any company providing office supplies to a government agency.

The law would affect businesses that have state contracts valued at $25,000 or more. On the local government level, it would apply to businesses with contracts valued at $15,000 or more.

The immigration bill that lawmakers discussed in a conference committee Wednesday has more than 15 provisions, including a measure that would prevent illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and a requirement for SLED to sign an agreement so its officers could enforce federal immigration laws.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, said he intends to send the bill to Gov. Mark Sanford within the next 10 days.

Immigration has been a hot issue during this election year. Fed up with the federal government's failure to get tough on illegal immigration, voters have demanded the Legislature act. Politicians have said South Carolina needs an immigration law because neighboring states -- including Georgia -- have passed similar laws.

Still, the bill is not a done deal. An unexpected disagreement could flare up before the committee meets again, or the governor could veto it.

The Legislature has been working on immigration for three years, and the federal database has been a sticky subject.

"It's a very complicated legal matter," Ritchie said. "It drives a lot of passion, and there is a practical reality that we are working with."

The federal database is an online system in which companies can enter an employee's name and Social Security number to see if they match. It does not detect identity theft.

Businesses caught violating the law would be subject to state tax violations and to a new provision that would make it a felony to file a false statement about employment verification.

Under the proposed bill, current employees would be exempt.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to place strict laws on private business even though Sanford and the hard-line anti-illegal immigration crowd have pushed it. But legislators have made it clear they do not want to spend public funds on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

"The vast majority of all employers are trying to do the right thing," Ritchie said. "The bad actors are knowingly hiring illegals to work at cut rates and to undercut their competition. This squarely talks to them."

Hundreds of businesses -- and potentially thousands of workers -- could be affected, although it is unclear exactly how many.

The S.C. Budget and Control Board has 20,000 registered vendors, although only a fourth win contracts. Last year, the board issued more than 1,500 contracts for goods and services worth more than $1 billion. Those figures don't include the S.C. Department of Transportation, which does its own contracting.

Numbers were not available for how many businesses would be impacted on the local level.

About the bill

The S.C. Illegal Immigration Reform Act would create the state's first immigration law. Some key provisions would:

• Require SLED to sign an agreement with federal officials so its officers can be trained and authorized to enforce federal immigration laws

• Bar illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and universities

• Require businesses charged with hiring illegal immigrants to withhold 7 percent of the wages as state income tax

• Require jailers to determine inmates' legal status

• Regulate the immigration assistance industry

• Make it a felony to harbor or transport illegal immigrants

• Prevent local governments from creating ordinances that pre-empt state law