Ray Thornburg remembers what it was like to walk up to a construction site and get hired on the spot.
“Now days you can’t do that because they don’t speak English,” said Thornburg, who has worked construction for 30 years.
He said he encouraged his nephew to find work on Summerville construction sites a couple years ago.
“But he couldn’t, because he didn’t know Spanish,” added Thornburg. “You go to the job sites around here, and you’ll see in every single crew, the concrete people, the sheet rockers, they are all foreigners.”
Recently he asked a large construction company owner about a superintendent’s position.
“He said, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ I said I do speak a little. Then he said, ‘You wouldn’t work for what we pay.’”
Because of these experiences Thornburg hopes South Carolina will continue to use the federal E-verify program to check for worker’s legal immigration status.
He acknowledges that not all Hispanics on construction sites are here illegally and says he has no objections to them personally or culturally.
“My only concern is jobs for Americans and the burden on our infrastructure,” said the Lowcountry man.
“Americans used do to that kind of work, but it’s hard to compete ... if they’ve got people who are working under the table, and if they can pay everybody $8 an hour and they all live in one trailer.”
Thornburg’s convictions illustrate the often muddy sentiments that drive the state debate. Further complicating things: His experience is the opposite of what is unfolding in the agricultural sector, where some farmers say they can’t find people to do the field work.
They are just two sides of the state’s illegal immigration debate, which flared up nationally twice in the last week.
Last week U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican who represents South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, drew criticism after comparing the issue to “taking the door off the hinges and allowing any kind of vagrant, or animal, or just somebody that’s hungry, or somebody that wants to do your dishes for you, to come in.”
It was the same day the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the state’s controversial new law, which goes into effect in January.
Under Act 69, police officers must check an individual’s immigration status during an arrest for a non-immigration crime, if the officer suspects the person is undocumented. The law also creates a special Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit.
A coalition of civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have also challenged the law, in part, alleging that it promotes racial profiling.
The Oct. 31 federal challenge says South Carolina’s law treads on federal law and will result in the wrongful detainment of foreign visitors, legal immigrants, and U.S. citizens, who cannot readily produce proof. The department also says the state law would divert resources away from high-priority problems, such as terrorism, drugs and gang activity.
South Carolina is one of several states that is clashing with federal law.
Justice officials are reviewing recent immigration-related laws in Utah, Indiana and Georgia, while courts have barred parts of the Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana laws and temporarily halted Utah’s law, according to the justice department.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the spokesman for the S.C. Department of Public Safety said officials were in the process of hiring a supervisor for the new law’s Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit and would then hire officers.
“We’re going to go ahead with what the General Assembly told us to do” said Sid Gaulden.
He said the special unit would ultimately need federally approved training, but there will be a wait that has nothing to do with the U.S. Department of Justice suit.
“Therein lies the problem,” he said. “The Horry County police department has set up its own unit and they’ve applied for the training ... but they have not had a chance to do it yet. So we’re in line.”