A Beaufort County pastor traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to urge Lowcountry lawmakers to pass immigration reform.
Ed Vernoy of the Beaufort-based Community Bible Church represents a congregation in which about 75 percent are in the country illegally. He oversees Hispanic services on Hilton Head Island, among other duties. He visited with three S.C. congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, to express his worry that a reform bill won't make it to the U.S. House floor before mid-term elections in November.
"We deal with folks who live in fear, whose normal rights are not protected," Vernoy said Thursday. "To table (the bill) would stall any type of solution."
In June, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping measure that would increase border security and create a 13-year wait for citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. So far, the House has declined to take it up, and many consider the bill dead.
Vernoy said his dialogue with Sanford, R-Beaufort, was positive, but the former governor was reluctant to say when or if the bill would surface in the House.
Attempts to reach Sanford on Thursday were unsuccessful.
In December, Sanford told an audience of reform advocates in Beaufort County that he did not support comprehensive immigration reform. He cited unanswered questions from Congress about the cost to implement and maintain a comprehensive plan, and concerns about its enforcement after the mismanaged Affordable Care Act roll-out.
Vernoy was among more than 200 pastors from across the country who met with members of Congress this week about reform.
A Walterboro native, he spent 17 years as a missionary in Venezuela before returning to join Community Bible.
He said many in his congregation live in perpetual fear. Rolling past a stop sign could land them back in their home country, he said.
"They realize they are wrong, that they've made a mistake" in being here without proper documents, he said. "But going back is not an option."
He does not favor complete amnesty but does support fines for those here illegally.
"These people are more than willing to pay fines to get things corrected," he said. "But right now, there's no way to do that."
Vernoy said he thinks the number of immigrants coming to Beaufort County has dwindled since the economy collapsed.
In 2010, 1 percent of the South Carolina population -- about 55,000 people -- was here illegally, according to a report released Wednesday by Pew Charitable Trust.
Though that's a small number compared to neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, South Carolina was listed as a "new immigrant state" in the report because of large increases in illegal immigrants as a share of the total state population. In 1990, 0.1 percent of the state's population -- about 5,000 people -- was unauthorized, the report said.
Lowcountry Immigration Coalition co-chairman George Kanuck said the statistics indicate the need for reform.
"The time for immigration reform is now," he said. "In fact, the time is well past."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.