S.C. immigration reform dealt fatal blow

The Legislature's compromise immigration reform bill was killed in a conference committee Wednesday.

The Legislature's long-fought immigration reform plan has been tossed aside.

A conference committee killed the compromise bill Wednesday because some lawmakers argued that it wouldn't do enough to stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants. The hang-up — as it has been for months — is over how to check a worker's documentation.

Rep. Jim Harrison told his Senate counterparts during negotiations that the House would not agree to the plan unless the federal I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Form was removed as an acceptable method of checking a worker's legal status. He placed new demands on the Senate to set a higher standard for its worker verification.

"We don't believe that's unduly harsh," said Harrison, R-Columbia.

Legislators have faced intense criticism from Americans Have Had Enough Coalition and other groups. Roan Garcia-Quintana, executive director of the coalition, organized a rally and called on his members to put pressure on the legislators.

"I am totally impressed that they have actually stood up," said Garcia-Quintana, a candidate for a Senate seat representing Greenville County.

"It seemed like what they wanted to do was try to trick 'we the people.' We prefer no bill than a bill that is misleading."

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, opposed the inclusion of the I-9 form

when the Senate initially debated the issue in mid-February. He wanted private employers, like public ones, to use only South Carolina driver's licenses or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system.

Critics argue the I-9 forms create a loophole because the federal government fails to check whether the Social Security numbers and names provided for I-9 forms are valid.

But the S.C. Chamber of Commerce balked at the removal of the use of the I-9 form, pointing to reliability issues with the alternative for worker verification, E-Verify.

"The important thing about the I-9 is, they are the accepted form at the federal level; therefore, they should be at the state level as well," said Marcia Purday, vice president of communication for the chamber.

Senate lead negotiator Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, said Wednesday he will take the demands back to his colleagues before the conference committee meets again.

"The Senate has been very clear that we don't want to set a trap for private employers," Ritchie said.

The reliability concerns ultimately led the Senate to give private employers the option of using E-Verify or the I-9 form in its final version of the bill. It designated felony charges for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

The House's version of the bill, finalized in late January, did not address standards for private employers.

Campsen and Ritchie have been working on a separate bill that would allow the state to suspend and ultimately revoke business and professional licenses for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

In addition to the worker verification standards, the illegal immigration reform plan asks the federal government for the right to enforce federal immigration laws, requires jails to verify the nationality of prisoners and gives workers the right to sue if they are replaced by illegal workers.

The bill would make it a felony to harbor or transport an illegal immigrant while offering protection to churches, health care workers and nonprofits in humanitarian efforts, among other provisions.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at (803) 799-9051 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.