Calls have been steady ever since the governor signed a law in early June laying out employment verification requirements for all of South Carolina’s business owners. Sometimes it’s a contractor claiming that his competition is underbidding him by using cheap, illegal workers. Other times it might be someone randomly driving past a work site.
“We’re averaging about one a day,” says Jim Knight, spokesman for the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Review, which is responsible for enforcing the law. “That’s just the ones who leave a message.”
A recorded voice tells callers the state law will be largely unenforceable for nearly two years. But there appears to be a steady stream of folks who just need to vent.
Passed in early June, the new law lays out requirements for business owners above and beyond the standard employee verification mandated by Washington. By July 2010, every new employee will have their immigrant status verified, either using a valid South Carolina drivers license, a license from a state with similar standards, or through the currently voluntary federal E-Verify system.
The argument is that the existing check for illegal workers, the federal I-9 form, has been ignored or abused by employers. Whether they’re the culprit or the scapegoat, business owners now can consider themselves the latest unit of the border patrol. Every employee will have to be checked, be it a Latino worker or your neighbor’s kid who was born at Roper.
The state’s Labor Department has launched an informational website, www.llr.state.sc.us/immigration, but questions linger.
Department staffing and enforcement costs have yet to be determined, Knight says. No funds has been provided, but legislators have said they’ll find the money when it’s needed next year.
The mechanics of the law are also missing. The new law makes reference to local business licences, but violations will only impact the state’s newly minted “employment license,” says lawyer Lee Gibbs Depret-Bixio.
“No one has to apply for it, but you can lose it,” she says.
The license is vague; it’s more like an implied privilege the state can withdraw if abused. The Department of Labor will have a list on its website of business owners who have lost their licenses.
There’s no clear understanding of how the penalties will be enforced. Particularly in industries that would seemingly be the most affected by the new law — construction and landscaping — where workers are transient and can easily move from one area to another to dodge enforcement. The Labor Department will draft regulations this fall and present them to the legislature next year, Knight says.
By that point, large public contractors (with 500 or more employees) will already be required to follow the new law. Other public contractors and private employers of more than 100 will follow by July. All other private employers will have until July 2010.
But the lack of specificity on penalties might not be such a pressing issue. Beaufort County’s local employment verification requirements (which includes independent local inspection of federal I-9 forms) has led to the auditing of more than 300 businesses since April.
The county won’t provide specifics on abuses, but officials say they’ve found a pattern of doctored identification and they’re going after the individual workers involved. But they stress that business owners are not suspected of being privy to the fraud. Like the new state law, Beaufort’s rules provide for penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegals. Since April, no business has been penalized.
Arizona has a similar record of targeting employees, and not their employers. Andrew Thomas, the attorney for Maricopa County, Ariz., told PBS in June that they wouldn’t be bringing a case until there was solid evidence.
Solid evidence, he says, “is showing that the employer knowingly or intentionally hired an illegal immigrant. And, I mean, it’s possible that we’ll never reach that threshold. I don’t think that will happen.”
Depret-Bixio says she expects profiling to be a major factor in complaints. It would surprise no one if a Latino work crew was pressed for papers faster than, say, City Paper‘s lily-white office.
Last week, the state Department of Transportation announced it would require contractors to start verifying workers early after state Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) said he’d received a complaint from a constituent that one work crew included a lot of Hispanics.
Where’s the Workforce?
Last month, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, who has four deputies trained by federal immigration agents, warned business owners that they should be careful what they wish for, according to The Beaufort Gazette. Recent news reports in the area have highlighted a downturn in the immigrant population.
“When you have golf courses that can’t sell a tee time because the grass hasn’t been cut, you can’t get to your dry cleaners anymore, or you go to a restaurant that you always loved and sit down and you’ve got to wait an hour and a half or two hours because they have a 50 percent cut in employees, we’ll have citizens calling us and telling us, ‘Y’all need to rethink this,” he said.
Those types of concerns reached the Arizona capital as that state’s new immigration laws led both legal and illegal immigrant workers to find work elsewhere. A bipartisan bill that would have created a state-sanctioned guest worker program failed against continued anti-immigrant rhetoric — lost jobs be damned.
“I don’t have to buy fast food,” state Rep. Russell Pearce, an Arizona Republican, told the Arizona Daily Star. “I don’t need somebody else to wash my car.”
The Center for Immigration Studies released a report last week claiming 1.3 million illegal immigrants left the country between last August and May 2008, due in part to increased enforcement (the decline began prior to January, when unemployment numbers spiked among immigrants). If the exodus continues, the U.S.’s illegal population will be cut in half within five years, the report notes.
There’s always a concern about the workforce in South Carolina, says Tom Sponseller, president and CEO of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina.
“In some areas of the state, there just never are enough residents there to fill all the jobs,” he says.
Local employers likely impacted by the new law refused to comment for this story, but they’ve expressed their frustration elsewhere. Speaking at a public hearing on a new toll road across Johns Island, Roger Warren, president of the Kiawah Island Golf Resorts said the road could make his business more attractive to local workers.
“We’re having to go out of the country to get workers … because we can’t get enough people in the Lowcountry to come work,” Warren said. “There are jobs for the people of Charleston County and Johns Island, and this road allows people to get to work safely and to get to work quicker.”
But even those guest workers Kiawah and others have employed are in shorter supply this year. Congress has allowed a special provision of the short-term guest worker program to lapse, meaning a maximum of 66,000 workers (33,000 every six months) are allowed in the country, about a third of what was allowed just a year ago.
Those lost jobs are a potential indication of things to come — with resorts forced to cut back on services to ensure quality, says Sponseller.
“It impacts how many rooms they can open or how many restaurants they can open,” he says. And it costs more than just immigrant jobs. “If they can’t open a restaurant, nobody will work.”