COLUMBIA -- By this fall, South Carolina law enforcement officers could be asking the people they suspect are illegal immigrants to prove them wrong.

Previous coverage

House immigration bill advances, 05/1311

The Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to give Gov. Nikki Haley an Arizona-style bill to sign in the coming weeks.

The proposed law is the state's second attempt to get tough on those who have illegally made South Carolina their home.

In 2008, the state passed a law intended to go after businesses that hired illegal immigrants and allow the State Law Enforcement Division to negotiate the right to enforce federal immigration laws. Parts of that law, however, were never acted on.

Tom Turnipseed, a former Democratic state senator and one-time segregationist who became a civil rights attorney, said the state's actions are "shameful."

"They haven't implemented the 2008 law, and this one is even more draconian than that one," he said. "The biggest problems are the cost and the diversion to law enforcement. It's a federal issue. We're not on the border. It's a distraction and it has racial overtones."

Others feel differently.

Roan Garcia-Quintana, an Upstate activist who calls himself a "Confederate Cuban," said he gives South Carolina a C- for its follow-through on the existing immigration reform law.

He is on the front lines pushing for the state to do more, especially to protect citizens from illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes.

"South Carolina has been overrun by illegals," he said at a recent legislative hearing. "The question I ask to all of you is, 'What do you want South Carolina to be like?' We already have our own criminals. We don't need to import criminals."

Latest proposal

The new bill calls on local or state officers to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop or arrest if the officer suspects that the person is in the country illegally. The officers would alert federal authorities about their suspicions, but local law enforcement could not hold that person due to constitutional concerns. If the federal authorities do not respond, the state and local officers must process the individual normally and release them.

Among other provisions, the bill directs residents to sue their local government in circuit court if the county or municipality fails to enforce the law, an attempt to block so-called sanctuary cities. The bill also would make it a felony to provide fake ID cards to illegal immigrants.

South Carolina is one of about 30 states that has debated passing laws to target illegal immigrants, a trend that has continued for several years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of March 31, 14 of the 52 bills introduced throughout the country has failed; 36 were pending.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has been aggressively going after businesses that hire illegal immigrants, auditing more than 6,000 businesses and identifying 2,206 violations, as directed by the 2008 law. But SLED never pursued an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as lawmakers directed in the three-year-old law, and now the proposed law would do away with that requirement.

Outgoing Director Reggie Lloyd has said repeatedly over the years that the state agency doesn't have the cash or resources to take on immigration when juggling rising gang violence and dangerous drug pushers.

Instead, under the proposed law, the state would create an Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit within the state Department of Public Safety that would need to work out an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known commonly as ICE. The creation of the state unit, however, is on hold until the state provides cash to pay for it.

The Senate passed the bill in March and the House is poised to do the same today. The governor will sign the bill if the Legislature sends it to her desk, Haley's press secretary Rob Godfrey said. The law would take effect as early as Sept. 1.

Local law enforcement

John Garrison, a major in the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, said lawmakers' desire to respond to illegal-immigration matters is admirable, but the bill as it's designed raises many questions and creates potential enforcement problems.

"I don't think anyone will doubt that just to put something in words and put it in a law is going to be useless," Garrison said.

Dorchester, like other agencies, does not have the manpower or detention space to wait on the federal government to respond when a deputy has identified an illegal immigrant, Garrison said. He also raised questions about the practical side of enforcing the proposed law, such as the amount of time deputies can detain an illegal immigrant charged with a minor traffic offense.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he thinks the state's success in enforcing immigration laws hinges on the cooperation the state gets from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said the issue represents "the greatest failure of Washington that you can point to," meanwhile the Obama Administration is sending mixed messages about the immigration enforcement.

Within the last year, Charleston County has turned more than 900 illegal immigrants over to ICE. The county has an agreement with the federal government to house immigration detainees. ICE then transports those in custody to federal detention facilities near Atlanta.

Charleston County is one of four counties in the state that has an enforcement agreement with ICE.

Extending the state's reach, Cannon said, could draw constitutional challenges, just as Arizona's law has.

"A lot will have to be worked out," Cannon said.

The numbers

Advocates and opponents alike spin the numbers to their advantage.

An independent study by the Pew Research Center released earlier this year showed that since 2007, the year the economy started its free fall, the number of illegal immigrants living in South Carolina reportedly dropped by 21.4 percent, or from roughly 70,000 individuals to 55,000. Likewise, Pew found, the national total dropped during the same period from 12 million to 11.2 million, or by 6.7 percent.

Opponents of the state's anti-illegal immigration bill note that the 2010 census showed that the state's population is 5.1 percent Latino, or 235,893 people. That means the Latino population is more than four times greater than the estimated number of illegal immigrants.

Those who support the new bill say the number of illegal immigrants is significantly higher.

Meanwhile, the two sides argue over the cost of illegal immigrants living in the state, in education, medical and incarceration costs. A 2010 study by the anti-illegal immigration advocacy group, the Federation of American Immigration Reform, found that illegal immigrants cost South Carolina taxpayers $391 million annually, which is 6.5 percent of the state's general fund budget. Past studies have shown that illegal immigrants contribute to local economies through consumer spending, sales tax, rent and other means.

Reform advocates say the state can't afford not to crack down on illegal immigrants. Opponents say the 2008 law and proposed 2011 law cost the state money it doesn't have and takes away time and energy from priorities, such as education.

The costs

The pending legislation is expected to have some costs to state and local law enforcement agencies for detention and training and other expenses, but the exact costs are unknown.

The Department of Corrections expects to spend money on immigration enforcement, but the agency could not provide an accurate estimate, according to the fiscal impact statement provided to lawmakers. Other parts of government such as the judicial branch, the Commission on Indigent Defense and the Law Enforcement Training Council expected "little or no impact." If various agencies attempt to reach agreements with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, officials can negotiate for the federal government to pick up parts of the cost.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation -- the chief enforcer of the 2008 law -- spent $1.45 million in the past two years on illegal immigration enforcement. The cash to do so came from licensing fees.

The agency issued $1.63 million is fines to businesses that hired illegal workers or did not properly check employees' legal status. The agency waived $1.61 million of that, due to a requirement in the law that gives businesses 72 hours to reach compliance for first offenses.

The pending bill would allow the Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department to issue new fines of between $15,000 and $50,000 to businesses that repeatedly break the law.

The final version of the bill may include a $5 fee on wire transfers of up to $500 sent out of the country with a 1 percent fee on transfers of more than $500, but some lawmakers are concerned that portion of the law will harm individuals in the military and some operating businesses, among others. The fee is projected to generate $4.7 million a year that could be used to pay for the state's proposed special illegal immigration enforcement unit.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855.