Bill targeting illegal immigrants heads to House
COLUMBIA -- An anti-illegal immigration bill that requires police officers to try to check suspects' legal status headed Thursday to the South Carolina House, where its GOP majority lists the issue among its top priorities.
The state Senate voted 34-9 to advance the bill, roughly 12 hours after a post-midnight vote of 28-8 gave it provisional approval.
Its main sponsor, Sen. Larry Grooms, said the late-night changes strengthened the measure. They included making it a felony to sell or produce fake driver's licenses or other picture IDs for illegal immigrants. Punishment would be a $25,000 fine, up to five years in prison, or both.
"Hopefully, we'll lead the nation in illegal immigrants self-deporting," said Grooms, R-Bonneau. He thinks that would create job openings in a state struggling with high unemployment.
The bill specifies the status check must follow a traffic stop or arrest for something else. Someone with a valid driver's license, military ID or passport would be presumed a legal resident. If officers suspect someone is in the country illegally, they would have to call Immigrations and Custom Enforcement.
But Senate leaders contend the bill makes an important distinction from the Arizona law that's being challenged in court, in that South Carolina officers couldn't hold someone strictly over suspicions about their immigration status.
"We didn't cross that line that invites a challenge," said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who led a subcommittee on the bill.
It specifies that suspicion can't be based on race, color or national origin. But opponents contend that clause is meaningless and, in practice, the bill legalizes racial profiling. They say it's is a waste of time and money in a year when lawmakers are cutting basic services.
"We're broke, and the last time I checked, we're not on a border," said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark. "I'm tired of conservative Republicans spending money on agenda items when there's no money to spend."
Sen. Robert Ford continued Thursday to argue that the bill would hurt the economy, saying immigrants are needed to do the manual labor that citizens won't do.
"Everybody in America knows that. The hard work right now in this country is going to be done by Latino or Mexican workers," said Ford, D-Charleston. "It might get my good friends in the Republican Party elected, but then who is going to go do the work?"
For days, the debate focused on a proposal by Sen. Jake Knotts to make it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant. His amendment would have required a one-year prison sentence on first offense, and five years on three or more.
"People don't understand why it's legal to be in South Carolina illegally," said Knotts, R-West Columbia, who at one point told his colleagues to get some backbone.
But other Republican senators, including Grooms, argued that would conflict with federal law and open up the state to lawsuits, which would fall to taxpayers to fund.
Knotts eventually withdrew that proposal in favor of a compromise that creates a new unit within the Department of Public Safety to enforce illegal immigration laws, expected to consist of 10 officers. The cost of that is unknown.