COLUMBIA- Hispanic opponents of a bill meant to further clamp down on illegal workers in South Carolina lashed out at its sponsor today in what became a rare shouting match in Senate offices.
Legislators are considering how to crack down harder on illegal workers, just two years after passing what many called one of the country's toughest anti-illegal immigration laws.
The bill discussed by a Senate subcommittee would put South Carolina in line with Arizona's controversial new law, by directing South Carolina law enforcement to try to check the legal status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. It specifies that suspicion can't be based on race, color or national origin.
The bill has almost no chance of passing this year, with just two weeks set in the session. But that didn't stop emotions from escalating.
Two Hispanic women confronted Sen. Larry Grooms after the meeting, asking 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 profiling is inhumane and that the bill is the wrong way to address illegal immigration.
"My job is to protect the citizens of this state ... not to provide economic liberties for people in other countries," Grooms, R-Bonneau, shouted back. He argued that people who employ illegal immigrants cheaply are cheating the system and putting citizens out of work.
The debate got more heated after Roan Garcia-Quintana, a Cuban American who advocates anti-illegal immigration bills, said the women should go back where they came from if they don't like it here.
Neither of the women is an illegal immigrant. One of the protesters, Ilia Rivera, of Greenville, shouted she's Puerto Rican and an Army veteran. Then she stalked off.
"Someone will stop me. I'm very sure they're going to," Rivera said about the bill. "I'm Puerto Rican and look like I'm Latino."
Ines Alvarez, also of Greenville, called the bill racist. A U.S. citizen originally from Panama, she is running as a Democrat to represent Greenville in the House, saying the Legislature needs an advocate for Hispanics. She said the push to rid the state of illegal workers will further hurt the economy.
"Nobody wants to go to the fields and pick up tomatoes or whatever," she said.
Later, Garcia-Quintana said he felt compelled to defend Grooms.
"I resent when they jump right in to the race card," he said, adding that illegal workers also "come in all shades of pale."
During the meeting, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell grilled Reggie Lloyd, Director of the State Law Enforcement Division, on why the agency hasn't negotiated an agreement with federal agencies to take on more immigration enforcement duties.
Legislators passed a law in 2008 directing SLED to enter an agreement with federal agencies - known as a 287(g) agreement - which trains officers in immigration enforcement and enables them to identify and detain illegal immigrants.
Lloyd noted the agency's state funding has been cut nearly 40 percent in two years.
Illegal immigrants are arrested daily for serious crimes, he said. Arresting them for working at a chicken plant, he said, would divert the agency's scarce resources and hurt attempts to gain trust in the Latino community to fight violent crime and gangs.