COLUMBIA -- South Carolina needs a new law similar to the controversial legislation recently passed in Arizona to fight illegal immigration, a Berkeley County senator said Thursday.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, filed a bill that, like the Arizona law, would allow local and state law enforcement officers to arrest illegal immigrants.
In the course of their normal police work, officers could check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally, although the bill says race, color or national origin can't be the basis for an officer's suspicion. If proper ID is shown, any suspect would be considered to be in the country legally.
The bill -- which was filed last week and likely won't be put to a vote until next year -- was the subject of a hearing at the Statehouse on Thursday that pit Grooms against a pair of immigration advocates and degenerated into a shouting match.
"Passions run high on certain issues and I am very passionate about protecting the state," Grooms told The Post and Courier later Thursday. "They were very passionate about protecting the interests of people outside of this country.
"It is my belief that, as a state, we should be doing anything within our power to curb illegal immigration, and to completely eradicate it is a worthy goal."
Two Hispanic women confronted Grooms after the hearing and asked him if he could tell which one was in the country illegally. He responded by doubting either was, sparking a back-and-forth argument before a TV camera.
The women argued that the bill will lead to racial profiling and that it is the wrong way to address the problem.
"My job is to protect the citizens of this state ... not to provide economic liberties for people in other countries," Grooms shouted back. He argued that people who employ illegal immigrants cheaply are cheating the system and putting citizens out of work.
Neither of the women is an illegal immigrant. One of the protesters, Ilia Rivera, of Greenville, shouted that she's Puerto Rican and an Army veteran. Then she stalked off in frustration. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and natives are U.S. citizens.
"Someone will stop me. I'm very sure they're going to," Rivera said about the bill on immigration enforcement in South Carolina. "I'm Puerto Rican and look like I'm Latino."
Grooms' bill would need quick action and very broad support to become law this year. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 3 and new bills introduced this late in the session don't stand much of a chance of making it through the legislative process in time.
The legislation builds on an existing anti-illegal immigration law the state passed in 2008, hailed at the time as being the toughest in the country.
The state law, studied by the Legislature for more than two years before its passage, requires all businesses to check the legal status of workers on an online database and authorizes the State Law Enforcement Division to reach a deal with the federal government for the enforcement of immigration laws.
SLED, however, never worked out an agreement with the federal government. Legislators at Thursday's hearing, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, grilled SLED Director Reggie Lloyd on why his agency never reached the agreement.
Lloyd said his agency was only required to sign the agreement once funding had been made available and that had not happened. He added that the Legislature has cut SLED's budget by nearly 40 percent since 2007.
Even if SLED had as much money as it did in 2007, Lloyd said he still wouldn't have the resources to search for illegal immigrants. He said the choice would be between tracking illegal immigrants or cracking down on violent crime and drug trafficking.
"We have enough on our plate, but if everyone wants us to go chase illegal immigrants, we will," Lloyd told the legislators.
McConnell, R-Charleston, said later Thursday that he is greatly frustrated with SLED for not telling legislators that the agency wasn't enforcing the immigration laws.
"We have got to stop immigration, and SLED should have aggressively gone forward," McConnell said. "We want action."
McConnell said that he supports Grooms' bill and signed on as a co-sponsor, along with 17 other senators. He said he believes the bill is constitutional.
"I think all this hand-wringing over the Arizona law is part of the gridlock in the country of doing nothing," McConnell said. "The federal government has failed to act. I think Arizona is doing the right thing. The country is being overrun."
If the bill does not pass before adjournment, Grooms and McConnell said they would work over the summer and fall to vet the bill and get it ready for passage as soon as the Legislature returns in January.