Legislation backer says it's what voters want; foe sees thin veil for racism

COLUMBIA — A statewide onslaught against illegal immigrants passed the first of three major hurdles Wednesday, but critics argued that it's nothing more than "feel-good" legislation that panders to South Carolinians frustrated by Congress' failure to act.

Meanwhile, some immigration advocates find the state legislation a thin veil for racism.

"Anytime you pass a bill that the public is very vocal about wanting, someone is going to say legislators are pandering," said House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who is lead sponsor of the bill. "The reality is, we're just responding to what our constituents have said they want to see done.

"Folks who are here illegally are here illegally, and if we're not going to enforce the law, there is no point in having it."

The bill will make its way across the Statehouse lobby, where Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said it should be well received. Next, the bill would be sent to a conference committee to tweak language or add proposals as a final version is hammered out, he said.

The legislation, which is similar to a Senate proposal passed last year, directs the State Law Enforcement Division to work out an agreement with federal authorities to allow the state to enforce federal immigration laws, including deportation. The bill also requires law enforcement to identify the legal status of any person arrested, and if they are found to be in the country illegally, the state would bill the federal government for any costs.

Legal residents would be given the right to sue an employer who terminates them while keeping a person the boss knows to be an illegal immigrant on the payroll under the bill, among other provisions.

James Hadstate, a Lowcountry attorney specializing in migrant farm worker issues, finds most of the bill a thin veil for racism and will only hurt the country and people trying to make a living.

"Since the overwhelming majority of undocumented workers are Hispanic, there is considerable concern among them," he said. "They're concerned that they're being targeted for something that is a power struggle between the state and federal government."

During 2007, immigration legislation failed in Congress while at least 1,500 pieces of state legislation involving immigration issues were introduced across the country. About 245 became law in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many state bills are being challenged in court, and others are hard to enforce.

Juan Carlos Chavez, a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant from Quintana Roo, Mexico, was one of several men waiting for work along North Charleston's Ashley Phosphate Road Wednesday afternoon. Chavez hadn't worked in a week, and the pay has been low with the recent economic downturn, but going back home wasn't appealing.

"I can't go back to Mexico with my hands empty," he said in Spanish.

Like many others, Chavez gave up what little he had to cross the border. He arrived in South Carolina about eight months ago. He repeated a refrain common among his countrymen seeking work in the U.S.: "We just want to work."

If the state starts cracking down on businesses that hire undocumented workers, Chavez supposed that jobs would dry up.

"Then I would have to immigrate somewhere else," he said.

Directed at businesses that hire illegal immigrants, the reform package would also require public contractors to verify the legal status of their employees through a federal work authorization program. If the contractors were caught knowingly employing illegal immigrants, they would be penalized 5 percent of the contract's value.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, said the state wasn't serious about stopping illegal immigration because if it were, the legislation would have called for contractors employing illegal workers to lose the government's business or be forced to fire the employees. He called the bill "feel-good" legislation.

"It's a sham," Neal said. "It's a pretense, It's a joke. It's not honest. ...

"We're giving a wink and a nod and calling the public blind mules because they don't understand the game that's being played."

Harrell called Neal's comments "absurd." During about three hours of debate on the House floor, members, mostly Democrats, attempted to poke holes in the bill. Supporters, though, argued that it was the best the state could do given that border enforcement, deportation and most other immigration-control measures are under federal jurisdiction.

In conjunction with the immigration reform package, the House also gave key approval to a resolution by Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, that directs the state to take any legal action possible to recover from the federal government money the state has spent on illegal immigrants.

The Senate also issued a call Wednesday for a constitutional convention that would allow the states, if 33 others states signed on, to amend the constitution only as it pertains to illegal immigration. The House will have to sign on to the resolution before it could be sent to Washington.

Gov. Mark Sanford commended the House for taking action after earlier this week asking the Legislature to address immigration during their first 30 days back in session.

"Since Washington has failed to act on this issue, I think that as a state we have to be very clear about not creating incentives for illegal behavior," Sanford said in a statement.

"As we've long said, the ultimate fix for this problem will have to come from Washington, but this bill is a step forward and I'd urge both the House and Senate to get it to my desk as soon as possible."

How they voted

The House voted 88-23 to approve the immigration reform package.

Here's a look at how Charleston-area lawmakers voted for the bill:

Republicans for: Dantzler, Goose Creek; Hagood, Sullivan's Island; Harrell, Charleston; Hutson, Summerville; Limehouse, Charleston; Merrill, Daniel Island; Scarborough, James Island; Umphlett, Moncks Corner; and Young, Summerville.

Republicans against: None

Democrats for: Knight, St. George; Miller, Pawleys Island; and Stavrinakis, Charleston.

Democrats against: Breeland, Charleston; Brown, Hollywood; Jefferson, Pineville; and Mack, North Charleston.

Not voting: Whipper, D-North Charleston.

More on reform

Additional House reform measures:

--Require magistrates to consider legal status when setting bonds.

--Allow victims of identify theft by illegal immigrants to sue.

--Prohibit any state county or municipality from failing to enforce state law.

--Bar illegal immigrants from attending any state-supported college or university in South Carolina and stop them from receiving any state-sanctioned scholarships or benefits toward private colleges or universities.

--Stop illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits provided by taxpayer funds. Certain exceptions, such as disaster relief, criminal domestic violence services and emergency medical services, will not be affected.

Noah Haglund contributed to this report. Reach Yvonne Wenger at (803) 799-9051 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.