Small businesses in South Carolina will soon have to verify all their workers are legal through an electronic verification system, and state authorities are ramping up efforts to make sure they know how to comply.
The system, called E-Verify, enables businesses to submit employees' names and Social Security numbers to a federal database to verify their eligibility for employment.
In June, Gov. Nikki Haley signed an amendment to the "Illegal Aliens and Private Employment" law to require all businesses to use the program by Jan. 1. Businesses that don't comply could lose their licenses to operate in the state.
Since that amendment, state authorities have traveled extensively to promote awareness of E-Verify. Those efforts won't end anytime soon, according to Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
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"We'll never stop educating businesses in the state," Templeton said. "We'll have this concentrated push at least through the end of next year."
As part of the state's efforts, Jim Knight of the Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance is already on his second tour of all the state's counties to raise awareness, according to Templeton.
"Our efforts reflect our governor's desire to make sure that available jobs only go to eligible workers," Templeton said.
Templeton said employers will have a grace period during the first six months of 2012, but after that, they will face a series of increasingly severe penalties with each violation.
Haley adopted the stringent stance on immigration shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law imposing penalties on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. South Carolina was one of several states to adopt similar legislation in the wake of that decision.
"The Supreme Court gave us the teeth," said Templeton. "Now we have the right to crack down on noncompliant businesses."
That position is contested by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed for a preliminary injunction against the implementation of another, broader anti-immigration law, also signed by Haley in June. That suit does not challenge E-Verify, but the ACLU does have concerns about the program. The Hilton Head Island-based Lowcountry Immigration Coalition is also a plaintiff in the suit.
"We have concerns about E-Verify," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. "It relies on a database with many errors, and that could create a lot of problems for people eligible to work."
But it hasn't yet proven to be a problem at CareCore, which employs about 400 at its Bluffton headquarters, according to Kathleen Speer, senior vice president of human resources.
"We've been using E-Verify for years," said Speer, adding there's no cost to use the program. "It's simple and instantaneous."
Beaufort-based Martin and Lindsay Landscape also said it has used the program for over a year.
"We haven't had any problems with it," said operations manager Ron Bridges. "It's something to cover our backs."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.