SC businesses face sanctions under immigration law

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COLUMBIA — South Caro­lina’s labor agency has a warning for businesses across the state: Check the legal status of your new employees through a free online system or face immediate penalties starting today.

The phase-in period for the state’s immigration
requirements ends with the fiscal year. For businesses
of all sizes, that means no more warning for a first violation.

The law requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to ensure their new hires are in the country legally or face punishments that start with probation and progress to a forced shutdown. Employees must be verified through the system within three business days of being hired.

“There is no free bite at the apple after July 1,” said Jim Knight, who oversees immigration compliance for the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The employer requirements were part of a broad illegal-immigration law
approved last year. Among other things, it required
law enforcement officers
to try to check the legal
status of someone they
suspect is in the country illegally.

While the criminal portions were challenged in federal court, the requirements on businesses remained intact.

Legislators had tacked on the business portion to tweak the state’s 2008 immigration law so South Carolina’s rules on checking employees’ status lined up with a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.

The 2008 law had begun applying to businesses of all sizes in July 2010, but last year’s changes reset the clock on enforcement. The changes included getting rid of the fining system and no longer allowing businesses to use a South Carolina driver’s license as confirmation of legal status.

The agency has spent the past year re-educating business groups on the law. Knight said he’s spoken at more than 200 meetings of chambers of commerce, trade associations and civic groups. And every employer received a mailing in September.

A director with the Home Builders Association of South Carolina said he’s heard no complaints.

“The general philosophy going forward is if you’re going to be in business, you’d better get used to using it. It protects you and is the way to go. Don’t fight it,” said Julian Barton, whose group that represents 3,500 builders. “There’s certainly no reason with the penalties to mess around.”

The new law created a grace period between January and June, during which the state would help businesses become compliant.

“Once they enroll in E-Verify, they say it’s easy,” Knight said. “It only takes a second to check.”

Between Jan. 1 and April 30, 92 percent of businesses randomly selected by a computer for an audit were following the law, Knight said.

Of the 130 employers caught not using E-Verify, all were small businesses with generally a dozen or fewer workers, whose officials were simply uninformed, Knight said. No illegal immigrant workers were found.

Knight attributes that to two things: the economic downturn and reports of the law itself that might have scared illegal immigrant workers into leaving.

Roberto Belen of the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council notes that the required checks apply to those newly hired. He said that leaves workers who already hold low-skilled, high-stamina jobs to endure even worse conditions.

“They will take any abuse, any conditions to remain employed because they have no other choice,” said Belen, a native of Puerto Rico who retired from the Air Force in 2007.

He believes the law’s punishments will also cause businesses to discriminate against people with last names that sound remotely Hispanic, no matter what their status.

Businesses have to be “very, very careful if they’re hiring someone not with a last name of Smith or Jones,” he said. “If they have to choose between a Jones or Perez, they’ll hire Jones. It creates a different class of society. That’s not right.”

Starting Sunday, a first violation brings a one-year probation, requiring the business to submit quarterly reports to the agency. If another violation occurs within three years, the business will be shut down for between 10 and 30 days through a temporary suspension of its operating licenses.

If the agency determines the employer knowingly hired an illegal immigrant, that brings an automatic suspension of 10 to 30 days on a first violation. The business can reopen only after proving the worker has been fired and paying a fee of up to $1,000. A second violation shuts down the business for 30 to 60 days. Additional offenses result in a permanent shutdown by revoking all business licenses.

The law also uses shame as an enforcement tool. A first offense, whether intentional or not, puts the business on the agency’s Web site for six months. A second violation means the employer becomes permanently posted.

IN GEORGIA

ATLANTA — More Georgia businesses will be required by state law to electronically check their workers’ legal status as of today.

The latest provision of Georgia’s law targeting illegal immigrants says businesses with at least 100 but fewer than 500 employees must start using E-Verify. Georgia Labor Department records show more than 5,600 employers of that size doing business across the state. Larger companies were required to begin using the program Jan. 1.

The state immigration law says companies with more than 10 but fewer than 100 workers will have to start using E-Verify on July 1, 2013.


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