COLUMBIA -- South Carolina senators put off until today debate on changing the state's 2008 illegal immigration law so they could work to bring it in line with last week's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. One senator warned that failure to act would jeopardize the entire three-year-old law.
The state's labor director and attorney general's office asked senators Wednesday to more closely align South Carolina's law with Arizona's.
Both laws penalize businesses for hiring workers in the country illegally. Because the high court upheld Arizona's last week, tweaking South Carolina's would ensure it too passes constitutional muster, said Catherine Templeton, director of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
"If we leave our law in place as is, we run the risk as soon as we adjourn of having someone file suit and enjoin the entire section, and then we will have no immigration enforcement," Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, told senators Wednesday evening. "My view of it is they'll be running to the local courthouse as soon as they can get there."
Staff scrambled to put the details in writing after Martin heard earlier from Templeton and an attorney general's representative. He was the chairman of a three-member panel looking into the issue, and the only one to attend the meeting.
Floor debate began to drag following his explanation, so senators carried over discussion until the last day of the regular session.
The proposal will be considered along with minor technical changes to a bill that would require officers to try to check suspects' immigration status, which is similar to a separate Arizona law that is being challenged in court. Unlike the Arizona law, South Carolina's measure would bar officers from holding someone on suspicion of being in the country illegally. That bill is back in the Senate after the House approved its version last week.
The tweaks would do away with fining businesses for violating the law and instead threaten to revoke the business licenses they need to operate, as well as other filings, such as articles of incorporation.
Businesses also would be limited to using E-verify, the federal online verification program, rather than having the option of hiring workers who hold a driver's license from South Carolina or other approved state.
Martin said the high court's ruling clarifies that state documents, such as a driver's license, can't solely be used to determine if someone is in the country legally, but E-verify is acceptable.
It is clear states can't impose civil fines but can suspend business licenses, he said.
"If we wanted a strong illegal immigration bill, shouldn't we support what you're suggesting, which is to comply with the Supreme Court?" asked Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, as some senators argued not to take out the license provision.
South Carolina's 2008 law took effect in stages, and began applying to businesses of all sizes last July. Over the last two years, the state has collected just $19,500 in fines. Though the state has assessed $1.6 million in business fines, the law requires the state to waive first-time penalties if companies correct the problem within three days.
Because the Supreme Court ruled penalties must be limited to employers who knowingly violate the law, the proposed amendment would still give companies what Templeton called an "oops" provision.
Before yanking companies' ability to operate, the state would give businesses a warning on their first offense, and put them on probation for a second.