SUMMERVILLE -- An illegal immigrant law comes down to risk. Does the town want to risk losing a lawsuit in order to do the job the federal government says only it has the authority to do?

That's the bottom line, town attorney Mark Stokes told Town Council on Monday at its Finance Committee meeting. "The conservative approach would be to wait and see what happens in other (legal) cases."

Councilman Walter Bailey didn't agree. Bailey, also an attorney and former 1st Circuit solicitor, is pushing the ordinance that would force employers and leasing agents to document the status of the people they hire or rent to.

"The easiest thing to do would be nothing," Bailey said. "I think sometimes you have to step up and take the risk." This is an opportunity to get out in front of a really hot issue that is important to people across the country, he said.

And that's the quandary council finds itself heading into on a Wednesday meeting and first vote on the controversial law. Council members have wrestled with whether it's the town's job since Bailey introduced the proposed ordinance last month, saying the federal government wasn't securing the border.

The law would require applicants to submit a driver's license or state-issued

identification card in order to be hired or get a lease. The town is probably on good legal grounds requiring employers to ask for a driver's license or state-issued identification card, Stokes said. But requiring leasing agents to do it could incur large legal costs, he said.

Councilman Aaron Brown said that, since he took his council seat in 2001, he has not seen any evidence that there is a need for the law in Summerville, and that it's a "hodgepodge" law opposed by businesses as unnecessary bureaucracy.

"Only the federal government can determine illegality. It's not the province of the state or the community. Sooner or later, the liability is going to catch up to us," he said. Other council members said they had mixed feelings about exposing the town to the risk.

A housing manager said the law might be putting the cart before the horse.

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"A lot of the things the town is trying to implement we're already doing," said Marysa Raymond, Charleston Apartment Association president, who manages properties in Summerville.

Leasing managers do credit checks, require photo identification and other documentation, such as work visas, she said. As she reads the law, it would force leasing managers to submit the documents for a certificate of occupancy. That could conflict with landlord-tenant and Fair Housing laws, she said.

"It's a deterrent for people, who might not rent in Summerville," she said. Because of the loss of business and tax revenue, "I don't think it's in (the town's) best interest or our best interest," she said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.