South Carolina has moved one step closer to requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they arrest, stop for a traffic violation or investigate on suspicion of breaking the law.
The S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a bill that now must be voted on by the full Senate. The earliest that could happen is Thursday, but people familiar with the state's legislature said the process is not likely to move that quickly.
The committee discussed the bill for nearly two hours as members debated its financial costs, the burden it would place on local law enforcement agencies and the fear that it would cause racial profiling toward the state's Hispanic residents. And one Democrat's comments about the work ethic of different ethnicities raised eyebrows and led Republicans to fire off criticism about his comments.
If passed, the bill would require police to verify the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain or investigate by calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also, it would allow jailers to transport illegal immigrants to a federal detention center after they receive permission from a judge to do so. And it requires prisons and jails to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security once a prisoner has completed his sentence.
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The bill also would tweak South Carolina's existing immigration law. The biggest impact would be a requirement that the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation fine companies that have not verified the immigration status of employees. The fine would be a maximum of $1,000 per employee.
The labor department has been allowed to waive the fine because lawmakers were concerned about giving businesses time to react to the new law when it was created in 2008. However, lawmakers who support the bill said businesses have had time to implement it.
Critics of the immigration bill believe it will lead to racial profiling even though one provision specifically forbids law enforcement from stopping someone based on his or her race, ethnicity or national origin.
But those who argued against the bill said police officers who are inclined to use racial profiling tactics will continue to do so by finding trivial excuses such as busted taillights on cars to pull over Hispanics.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington and a former police officer, said he had concerns about the law being applied equally across the state.
Many small police departments do not have the resources to train or equip their officers to properly check an immigration status, he said. He wanted to know how police would decide they had probable cause to ask for someone's immigration documents.
"I'm looking at the law enforcement part of it to make sure every person is treated equally," Knotts said. "Aside from common sense, how do you decide? But you can't pass a bill on common sense."
Martin said local law enforcement needs to start doing its part to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the state. Last week, a report from the Pew Research Center estimated there were 55,000 illegal immigrants in South Carolina, a 21.4 percent decline since 2007.
The judiciary committee approved the bill by a 13-6 vote, with the opposition coming from the committee's five black members and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Immigration debates often stir racial sensitivity and lead to comments that can offend different races and ethnicities. On Tuesday, the controversial comments came from Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who argued against the bill by saying it would frighten away "Mexicans" when South Carolina needs Mexicans to perform manual labor.
Ford said Mexicans would be needed to help build the Boeing plant in North Charleston.
"Ever since this country was built, we've always had someone else come in and do the work for us," he said.