AIKEN --- It doesn't take any coaxing for Michael Lalich to find Hispanic laborers willing to work on South Carolina farms each year. The Charleston recruiter brings legal immigrants to the state through U.S. Department of Labor programs.
He's up front about back-breaking work, but says they'll jump at the chance to make some money.
"I'm not promising them the Ritz Carlton, but it's clean. All of it's regulated, and there's a set base of rules," said Lalich, the owner of Lowcountry Labor and MLT services.
Lalich and farmers such as Ridge Spring's Chalmers Carr III, CEO of Titan Farms, say taking the legal route is more expensive but better than taking a chance that an illegal crew could be detained and an entire harvest wither. And farmers don't want to run afoul of the law.
In 2008, South Carolina adopted the Illegal Immigration Reform Act, which levies penalties up to $1,000 per violation for businesses found with illegal workers.
In the first phase of the plan, state Labor, Licensing and Regulation agents went after businesses with more than 100 employees for violations such as not registering employees with E-Verify and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Employers have 72 hours to comply or face penalties, including having a business license revoked.
THE ONLY OFFENSE in Aiken County since 2008 involved ASCO Valve Manufacturing Inc., which was penalized $1,700 in February for not using E-Verify to test new employees' status. The penalty was waived because it was a first-time violation.
Ninety-four employer citations have been reported statewide since 2008. Businesses with fewer than 100 employees have until July 1 to meet compliance.
It's estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 illegal immigrants live in South Carolina, according to a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center study. Lalich, who works with farmers across the state to set labor plans for the year, said he still sees about 50 percent of the work conducted by illegal immigrants.
WHILE SOUTH CAROLINA laws are among the toughest in the country, enforcement of illegal immigration is most often left up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through a system that local law enforcement and lawyers say is flawed.
"If a complaint comes up, we'll address it," said Sgt. Dave Myers, Aiken County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "We may not get the response that we need (from ICE)."
Representatives of the regional ICE task force did not return messages requesting interviews for this story.
Myers said illegal immigrants often are discovered when they're being processed for jail.
Enforcement in Georgia doesn't differ much, said Paul Balducci, an Augusta lawyer who has focused on immigration since 1996.
"There is a law, passed a couple of years ago, in Georgia that requires law enforcement to notify ICE if they have a DUI or felony charge and determine that they're not a U.S. citizen," he said.
If determined to be here illegally, ICE places a detainer on the immigrant, Balducci said. During that time, ICE has 48 hours to pick up the immigrant. If 48 hours passes, then the immigrant is free to go after paying his bond.
"There's no separate mandate, like in Arizona, where all law enforcement is supposed to detain people who aren't in the U.S. legally," he said.
LAST week, South Carolina legislators used Arizona's blueprint to add more teeth to the state's laws.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, introduced a bill Thursday that would require law enforcement to check someone's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" the individual is in the country illegally.
In April, a similar bill, H. 4919, was introduced in the House. Nineteen members of the Senate, including Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, co-signed the bill.
Balducci said he has even seen a case in which an illegal immigrant from Haiti approached ICE about trying to get back home, but ICE couldn't afford to deport him.
"There is barely enough money to deport aliens," he said, let alone go looking for them.
With a lack of funding and officers to track illegal immigrants, employers will continue to use the laborers who will do the jobs Americans won't, Lalich said.
"It's a chance, a risk (employers) take."
Staff Writer Bianca Cain and the Morris News Service contributed to this story.