When Michael Baynard took over as general manager at Jabar Communications, a Charleston business with Hispanic radio and TV stations, he quickly realized the company hadn't been keeping up with requirements to ensure employees were legal. Baynard was ready to get in compliance, but he was surprised at the results.
"It ended up causing me to dismiss my entire Spanish-speaking staff," he says.
While it may have caused a headache for him at the time, Baynard can take comfort that he was ahead of a mandated curve. With the increasingly loud drumbeat for immigration reform, both in South Carolina and the country, politicians are ramping up enforcement of existing laws and preparing to put new hurdles in place to hobble the chief incentive for illegal immigrants to sneak over the border — gainful employment.
Though the government has mandated that employers fill out I-9 eligibility forms for years, the enforcement of those forms has been nonexistent unless prompted by some complaint. But federal officials have stricken easily doctored identification from the approval process. They're also ramping up enforcement of suspect Social Security numbers.
"This is two-pronged," says labor lawyer Amanda Newell. "They go after the employee and the employer at the highest level."
Employers typically face money laundering and conspiracy charges, she says. Fines can range from a couple hundred dollars to $17,000 and could mean more than five years in prison in more severe cases with a large number of illegals. Investigations of major employers like Wal-Mart have ended up with settlements worth millions of dollars.
Michael Lalich, owner of Lowcountry Labor Co., provides businesses with legal workers from south of the border through the government's existing guest worker program. He says that interest in the program has grown exponentially since the notice of increased enforcement.
"People are looking for avenues to find legal workers," he says.
The program, which allows 10-month temporary employment for aliens "is not a cure-all," Lalich says, but it is an avenue to take care of hard-to-fill jobs.
State senators, led by bill author Jim Ritchie (R-Spartanburg), have been touring the state and taking public comments on immigration reform. The legislature is expected to debate the issue when they return to work in January. The current bill would require businesses to confirm that employees are legal through a pilot verification system and would open up employers to civil suits when workers feel they lost their job to an illegal immigrant.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has shifted its position on the proposed state solution for immigration reform. While the chamber had previously called for a national plan, their new position, which has yet to win approval from the full chamber board, would also support statewide reform with some exceptions.
"There seems to be tremendous interest on the horizon for a statewide solution," says Charles Van Rysselberge with the chamber.
The change in tone may come from recent ordinances in Beaufort and Dorchester counties that establish differing local immigration standards for businesses. The chamber is calling for the state law to supersede any regulations made on the local level.
"A local solution will not be in cooperation with the next city," Van Rysselberge says of the potential confusion of 46 different guidelines in South Carolina.
But Robert New, with Charleston Port Services, accuses the chamber of "rolling over" on the issue.
"The reality is that it has to be dealt with on a national level," he says.
Hardline illegal immigrant opponents aren't happy with the proposed compromise, either. Kendra Linkowski, an organizer for the Lowcountry Minutemen Civil Defense Corp., worries that concessions to the Charleston chamber and others will turn this sharp-toothed piece of legislation into a gummy mess.
"If the Chamber is for it, I'm against it," she says. "They were against it for so long, it raises our eyebrows now that they're for it."
Linkowski stresses that her group is not racist, only that they don't want illegal immigrants getting jobs and settling in our communities. While she has been encouraged by the political attention to the issue, Linkowski frets over the slow-moving bureaucracy.
"It's hard to tell what's real and what's lip service to get them elected," she says.