York County's Hispanic community and some small businesses aren't pleased with a new state law designed to ensure the Palmetto State shows a cold shoulder to illegal immigrants looking for work.
"The hope of getting a job in this state is low, so people are becoming concerned," said the Rev. Adamin Avila, pastor of Rock Hill's Tabernacle of the Testimony Pentecostal Church, a Hispanic congregation that meets in a church on McDow Drive off Cherry Road.
The cause for concern centers around South Carolina's new Illegal Immigration Reform Act, signed by Gov. Mark Sanford this month. The act is designed to stiffen regulations on employers. It requires them to verify the legal work status of their employees or risk losing their business licenses.
"We are teaching people to trust in the Lord and to not be afraid," Avila said. But he noted that several parishioners, suffering from the slow economy, are thinking about moving out of the state as work becomes scarce.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Sending a message
Beginning Jan. 1, under the law, any company doing business with state and local governments will have to use a federal electronic database to verify new workers' names and Social Security numbers or require a South Carolina driver's license from newly hired workers. By July 2010, all employers will have to comply.
The intent of the law is to discourage illegal immigrants from moving into the state by making it tough for them to find a job. Legislators said the law is the toughest in the nation. But critics contend that the bill won't fix immigration problems, which they say are a federal issue.
"This sends the message that we're a nation of laws," said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, one of the act's sponsors. "If you're going to come to our state or run a business here, you've got to obey the laws."
Businesses found in violation could lose their right to do business in South Carolina and are subject to fines.
Small businesses with fewer than 100 employees won't have to comply until July 2010. But larger private companies will have to follow it by next summer. It will be enforced by the S.C. Department of Revenue.
The employee-screening requirements are just part of the law, which includes more than a dozen provisions. Others bar illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and owning guns, and set up a hot line at the S.C. Minority Affairs Commission.
Politicians felt pressure to pass such a law because of public outcry. Simrill said the state needed to step in because the federal government has failed to act.
Simrill said the 55,000 illegal workers believed to live in South Carolina account for about $75 million in taxpayer-financed burdens on schools, law enforcement and hospitals.
Immigrants claim injustice
Antonio Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from El Salvador several years ago, owns a small painting and home-improvement business and is a member of Avila's Rock Hill church. He came here to find work, and many of his employees are undocumented immigrants.
Cabrera contends the new laws don't address injustices. He says undocumented immigrants are being taken advantage of by employers who aren't paying them for work.
Because employers know that illegal immigrants won't file a lawsuit, some don't obey minimum wage and equality laws, Cabrera said.
Cabrera suggested a temporary worker program. He believes that would allow the government to tax and track immigrant workers while still allowing immigrants -- many who make as little as $3 a day and can barely feed their families in their native country -- to work in America.
"They are right to deport people who come here illegally," he said. "But these are not criminals. These are good people with wives and children."
America's wealth and opportunities are "like a piece of cheese put in a mouse trap," Cabrera said. "Then, they say, 'Don't touch it.' If they had a program, workers wouldn't have to come here illegally."
'Horrible deal' for business
The new law is getting a cold reception from the landscaping industry, which along with construction and hospitality is a major employer of immigrant workers.
"It's a horrible deal for small businesses," said Steve Crump, president of the S.C. Nursery and Landscaping Association and owner of Rock Hill's Rolling Hills Nursery. "It does nothing for illegal immigration. Immigration is a federal issue."
Crump said that in addition to his normal legal checks when hiring, he'll now have to check workers in the federal database, called E-Verify, which is supposed to be voluntary and is hardly foolproof.
"The paperwork is going to be mind-boggling for me," Crump said.
Simrill counters that the E-Verify program is easier than the paper forms most businesses use, and the new laws will streamline checking legal status of workers.
"People thinking it's too difficult probably haven't read the instructions," Simrill said. "I think this is the right track for our state."
Still, small businessowners such as Crump say they remain concerned.
"You think food prices are bad now? Wait until the crops are rotting in the field because there is no one to pick them," Crump said. "I'm against illegal immigration as much as the next guy, but it's a bad bill that never should have been passed."