County takes on immigration

AIKEN - It doesn't say it now, but Aiken County's welcome sign might need a couple of new sentences if a proposed immigration law passes:

You'd better be here legally. And speak English.

County council members could make English the official language of Aiken County with a proposed law that also requires jail staff to determine whether inmates are U.S. citizens.

It also bans the county from hiring people who can't prove they're legal residents, asks that all companies that do business with Aiken County not hire illegal immigrants and bans agencies receiving county money from serving illegal immigrants.

Councilwoman Kathy Rawls, one of the sponsors of the proposed law, said she and other council members had hoped something similar would be done at the state level.

Frustrated when that didn't happen, she said, the council drafted this ordinance to send a message to President Bush and state representatives that "it's about time you started enforcing the law."

"I think it was just to emphasize the point," she said. "It irritates me to call and have to punch 1 for English. English is our national language."

That's not all she said she's angry about. Ms. Rawls said she's also "furious" that when county jailers find out an inmate is in the country illegally "the federal agencies that are supposed to pick these people up and send them back to their country of origin do not want to be bothered unless they have committed a violent crime or unless they have already been sent back once. That really distressed me."

Similar laws across the country have been challenged - some overturned by the courts - and county staff warned council members in a memo in June that they might run into problems enforcing the regulations.

The proposed law - which does not address any ethnic group - has to pass at least two more readings by the county council before it's on the books. The earliest it could go into effect would be September, said County Administrator Clay Killian.

"That doesn't mean we'll stick to that schedule," he said. "There's obviously going to be a great deal of debate on this one."

Ms. Rawls said she hopes that the county will make the law even tougher and target landlords and hotel owners who rent to illegal immigrants. She also wants businesses found to be employing illegal immigrants punished.

"But we really haven't gotten a good handle on how we'd enforce that," she said. "I think there may also be some challenges before the court at present in other areas of the country."

County staff research found that the city of Hazelton, Pa., is being prevented from enforcing its tough illegal immigration law - which would have punished businesses and required apartment dwellers to get a special residency license - after a federal lawsuit was filed.

At least two other similar laws in Missouri and California were struck down, and the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging others also.

Ms. Rawls said she hopes the state will enact its own law addressing the matter.

"We should all be very concerned about who is coming into our country now illegally," she said. "They need to get serious about making our borders more safe."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.