Accord on illegals bill closer

COLUMBIA — In behind-the-scenes discussions, the two most powerful Charleston legislators worked to reach a compromise on illegal immigration reform that is likely to make it into law.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell worked to bring their chambers together on an issue that has fiercely divided the Legislature for months.

The Senate gave the latest plan key approval Tuesday and the House is expected to take a vote in the coming days, at which time the bill would go to Gov. Mark Sanford's desk.

"I think this bill will have a chilling effect like an Arctic breeze," McConnell said. "We will not stand idly by with this silent invasion."

The major controversy has been over how the state will ensure that businesses aren't hiring illegal immigrants. The compromise plan would:

-- Require all businesses to check the legal status of workers by using a state driver's license, a license from another state that has the same eligibility requirements or E-Verify.

E-Verify is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's free, online database that lets employers check Social Security numbers. The state's Employment Security Commission must help employers use the database.

-- Fine employers between $100 and $1,000 for every time they fail to verify the legal status of a worker.

-- Charge employers who knowingly hire an illegal immigrant with a felony.

-- Suspend a business' right to operate in South Carolina for 10 to 30 days for the first time it is caught knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant, 30 to 60 days for a second offense, and revoke its right for at least five years for a third offense. Employers also would need to pay $1,000 to open for business again.

For the first offense, employers would be given 72 hours to register and use E-Verify, allowing them to avoid a fine and suspension. In all cases, the illegal worker must be fired.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation would investigate businesses to make sure they are verifying that workers are legally entitled to a job. The federal government must at the state's request determine if a worker is legal.

If they're not, the agency would make a judgment as to whether the employer knew the worker was illegal or if they were duped by false documents, and that decision determines what penalties would be imposed.

The Labor Department would conduct random audits and respond to written and signed complaints. It also would publish a list of businesses that violate the law on its Web site.

Compliance would be phased in between January 2009 and July 2010, depending on the size of the business (smaller companies are given more time) and whether it has state contracts.

"We're going to reinstate the rule of law in this area," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.

Diana Salazar, president of the Latino Association of Charleston, doesn't see it that way.

"I think they have not considered the impact to the economy," she said. Salazar predicted that the state's economy will take a hit when "undocumented" workers are forced out. "It should be a federal issue," Salazar added.

If the plan passes, South Carolina would follow Georgia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states that have attempted to rein in illegal immigration with comprehensive reform plans.

The bill has been passed between the House and Senate several times, was hung up in negotiations and scrutinized intensely by the governor and the public.

In all, it would also make it a felony for those who use fake documents to obtain state benefits, give victims of identity theft connected to an illegal immigrant the right to sue for three times their actual losses and require judges to consider immigration status before setting bond, among other provisions.

"There's been a lot of back and forth on this bill over the past few weeks, but we believe the end result that the Senate approved today is what everyone was after the whole time — a strong and enforceable immigration bill," Sanford said in a statement released Tuesday.