editorial Senators McConnell & Campsen

Business lobbyists weaken efforts for strong anti-illegals law

The impact of illegal immigration on our state is staggering. It is estimated that state and local taxpayers paid $187 million last year to provide public services to illegal immigrants, such as medical care, education and law enforcement. It is also reported that the hiring of illegal immigrants in South Carolina has resulted in a reduction in wages paid to South Carolinians.

The magnitude of the problem is obvious and seems to be getting worse each day. According to The Economist magazine, between 2000 and 2006, South Carolina was one of only three states with a growth rate in its illegal immigrant population that exceeded 50 percent.

Additionally, we have received testimony that the use of illegal workers has created an unlevel playing field. Businesses that operate with legal workforces cannot compete against those with illegal workforces in bidding on contracts.

The blame rests in Washington where Congress has refused to act on the issue of illegal immigration. All they have done is mandate costs and pre-empted our ability to act except in very limited areas. They do not even enforce the laws they have passed. It is within the narrow confines of those permissible areas and in the areas that are not being enforced that we sought to act.

Because of Washington’s failure to secure our national borders, the S.C. Senate has been working on this matter for more than a year. Last week, we amended our immigration bill and returned it to the House of Representatives. The House will now either concur in the Senate amendment, or the bill will be the subject of a conference committee where the differences between the two versions will be worked out.

What the Senate passed is much better than the status quo, and is much stronger than earlier versions passed by either the House or Senate. However, it is not as good a bill as it could have been.

Among other things, the bill requires employers to verify the legal status of their employees. We considered a provision allowing federal I-9 forms to be sufficient verification as an weakness, since the I-9 is the basis of the failed federal verification system we are trying to correct. Fake Social Security cards and fake out-of-state driver’s licenses are all that is needed for the I-9, and federal law prohibits scrutiny of these underlying documents. We, therefore, offered amendments to assure a meaningful employee verification system similar to a plan enacted in Arizona, which has been effective and upheld in the federal courts.

The first amendment removed the faulty I-9 as a verification option. Having lost that amendment, we offered another that created a South Carolina form similar to the I-9. But unlike the federal form, it could be scrutinized by state officials for its validity. Neither of these plans placed an undue burden on South Carolina businesses, but each was defeated by a business lobby spearheaded by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

The people of our area need to know that we offered and fought for an amendment that would have required employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that the people they hire are legally in this country. They could have done this either by reviewing the applicants’ South Carolina driver’s licenses, participating in the federal government’s E-Verify system, or filling out S.C. I-9 forms.

None of these steps would have placed an undue burden on businesses and would not have subjected them to fines if they mistakenly hired an illegal worker who had false documents. In fact, we sought to accommodate any concern that senators had about our amendments being too burdensome on our small-business owners. However, no matter how hard we tried to make this work, it seems that the major problem our opponents had with our amendments is that they would be effective in stemming illegal immigration. That seems to have been the problem.

The state Chamber of Commerce and its lobbyists worked against our amendments and their pressure worked. Their allies defeated any attempt to have meaningful enforcement.

We believe that the future well-being of our state and its citizens requires us to be vigilant in our efforts to do everything we can to stem the influx of illegal immigrants into our state. That is why the Senate passed a call for a constitutional convention that would allow the states to protect themselves if Congress continues to fail to act. That is why the Senate passed a bill that would require all state-government business to be conducted in English only.

But we also need to ensure that our businesses compete on an even footing and that the businesses that hire legal workers are not put at competitive disadvantage by those that intentionally do not.

We report to you on our unsuccessful efforts to strengthen reform and, sadly, on the success the Chamber’s lobby had in blocking more meaningful reform. With federal pre-emption in so many areas, what we asked for in reform was not overreaching or unreasonable. In fact, we consider the intensity of the lobbying effort against our reforms by those with vested interests in keeping the flow of illegal workers open to be a testimony to the effectiveness of our proposals.

Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Dist. 41, represents Charleston County and is President Pro Tempore of the S.C. Senate. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Dist. 43, represents Berkeley and Charleston counties.