Weary of Washington, South Carolina Does Its Own Immigration Reform
By Franco Ordonez
State laws that were passed out of frustration after the last failed effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws are now being enforced _ some more than others.
Big companies with national operations have started to confront the hassle of trying to comply _ or weighing the risks of eluding _ dozens of different state immigration laws.
A federal proposal that passed the U.S. Senate last summer sought to create a uniform standard. It would have pre-empted most state acts. But reluctance in the House of Representatives has left the federal debate on perilous footing, allowing states such as South Carolina to step in.
State legislators are returning to work this month to begin their legislative sessions. Some probably will be looking for guidance to fill the void left by Washington gridlock.
While Arizona has drawn the most attention, it's South Carolina that's being touted as the new model for a successful workplace compliance program.
"South Carolina is the gold standard, if you believe in a lot of enforcement," said Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which represents employers who seek a federal overhaul. "They spent a lot of money to set up a separate infrastructure and did a very effective enforcement of their workplace stuff. Arizona, by contrast, never set up an infrastructure and I think did a rather poor job."
There are more than two dozen kinds of state-employment immigration laws or variations thereof. Most center on the federal E-Verify program, which allows businesses to check the legal status of new hires. Critics complain that the system is riddled with problems.
All employers in Alabama and Arizona are required to use the system. In Missouri, public employers and some public contractors must use it. Last year, North Carolina amended its statewide E-Verify law to exclude more temporary workers.
For some state lawmakers, passing state laws was more of a political gesture to appease fed-up constituents. But South Carolina is cracking down.
The South Carolina Illegal Aliens and Private Employment Act requires most employers to verify the legal status of new hires or risk getting their business licenses suspended. Farmers, maids and fishermen are exempt.
State officials have conducted nearly 9,000 random audits of businesses in two years and cited more than 640 companies with failure to comply.
More than 15,800 South Carolina businesses signed up for E-Verify in 2012 _ the first year of the state program _ more than any other state that year.
More than 90 percent of businesses were in compliance.
"The main objective is to ensure that available jobs in South Carolina are provided to individuals who are legally in the United States and authorized to be employed," said Lesia Kudelka, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance.
In contrast, fewer than half of Arizona businesses have signed up for E-Verify despite statewide compliance laws passed in 2008. The Arizona attorney general cites just two cases of companies receiving notice of violations under the Legal Arizona Workers Act. In South Carolina, big business is paying attention. Internal calls and emails have been flying among managers at big companies who are trying to make sure all divisions are complaint, said Ian Macdonald, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who specializes in immigration compliance.
"A lot of them are not completely compliant," Macdonald said. "When you got a retail company and they're faced with the prospect of losing their business license, it has a significant impact on their operations."