Sanford signs broad illegal immigration law

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

COLUMBIA — South Carolina became the fifth state in the nation to pass broad illegal immigration reform with the stroke of Gov. Mark Sanford's pen Wednesday.

The new law — the hallmark of this legislative session — is being touted as the toughest in the United States. Legislators said they studied the laws and lessons from Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma, and incorporated what worked, improved what didn't and added a number of new provisions.

"This puts South Carolina in the forefront of where all states are on immigration reform," said Sanford, who was joined by about 20 legislators for the bill signing.

The new law took effect Wednesday, although portions, primarily employment verification standards, will be phased in over the coming months.

Ann Morse, program director the National Conference of State Legislatures' immigrant policy project, said recent legal challenges to the laws in Oklahoma and elsewhere raise "a real question" of how South Carolina's law will be received.

Legislators here say they pushed the boundaries of federal limitations but crafted a law that is expected to hold up against legal challenges.

The state's new illegal immigration reform law is long and complicated. Here are some of the real-life implications:

Q: What do I need to know about hiring a landscaper, kitchen remodeling company or any other home contractor?

A: It is not your responsibility to check whether the labor is legal or illegal. That burden is on the company that employs the workers. If the contractor is self-employed, such as a landscaper, then you are not required to verify their immigration status.

Q: As a small business owner, what do I need to know about new hiring standards?

A: All employers must verify the legal status of their workers using a South Carolina driver's license, an ID card, or the documents needed to obtain one. Licenses from other states with the same eligibility requirements are also acceptable. The final option is using the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's online database called E-Verify. It is free to enroll and use.

Businesses with fewer than 100 employees have until July 1, 2010, to comply with the new law. The state Employment Security Commission and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation are available to help with questions. Deadlines for larger companies and those that do business with government agencies are sooner.

Q: I am an illegal immigrant. How will my life, and my children's lives, change?

A: An unwelcome backdrop for employment is arguably the single biggest implication of the new law. The goal of the legislation is to ensure illegal immigrants aren't working here.

You could be charged with a felony if you provide false information to get a job or gain public benefits such as Medicaid. You would also subject yourself to a lawsuit if you steal another person's identity in an effort to create fraudulent immigration or identification documents.

If you own a firearm or try to purchase or sell one, you could also be charged with a felony.

Emergency medical treatment will still be available, as well as nonprofit services such as food at soup kitchens and short-term shelter, prenatal care and protection from domestic abuse.

Children under 18 will still have the right to a public education and public benefits, although no illegal immigrant can attend a state-supported college or receive any scholarships.

Q: I suspect a business is using illegal labor. What can I do?

A: The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation will accept written and signed complaints and investigate credible allegations. The agency will also conduct random audits of businesses to make sure they've attempted to verify the workers are legal. If the investigators find illegal workers are on staff, they are obligated to turn that information over to Homeland Security and state law enforcement agencies, in addition to requiring those workers be fired.

Q: My church or social service organization is serving illegal immigrants. Do we have to stop?

A: Probably not. While harboring and transporting illegal immigrants is now a state crime, the Legislature built in an exception for churches and nonprofits to carry out their missions without the threat of legal action. However, if the purpose of providing aid to an illegal immigrant is to conceal their identity or further their illegal status in the country, then the organization may be subject to criminal prosecution.

Q: I hire illegal workers for my business. What will happen if I get caught?

A: Penalties are broken into two categories. The first involves businesses that do not verify the immigration status of their workers. They would be subject to a $100 to $1,000 fine for a worker who is not verified. For the first offense, employers are given 72 hours after they're caught to verify all new employees' status. Businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants would be shut down for 10 to 30 days for a first offense, up to two months for a second offense and five years for a third offense. Reinstatement fees would cost up to $1,000. In all cases, illegal workers must be immediately fired.

Q: An illegal immigrant stole my identity. What recourse do I have?

A: Victims of identity theft associated with an illegal immigrant can sue the thief, or anyone who helped them steal your identity, and may be awarded up to three times the cost of any actual damages, plus attorney's fees.

Q: I was fired and replaced by an illegal immigrant. What can I do?

A: Lawful workers will have the right to sue their former bosses if they are fired and replaced by someone the employer knew, or should have known, to be an illegal immigrant. The lawful worker can get their job back and collect lost wages and actual damages which would include things like the cost of a home foreclosure. The right to sue is only available for one year after the employee's termination.