South Carolina's new immigration law will take effect in less than two months, and state authorities held a seminar Tuesday on Hilton Head Island to educate local business owners about the change.
The seminar, sponsored by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and held at the Park Lane Hotel and Suites, promoted awareness of the E-Verify program, which enables business owners to verify new employees' citizenship status.
Beginning Jan. 1, all businesses in the state must use the program, which runs names and Social Security numbers through a federal database to determine whether a person is eligible for employment.
"It's very easy to use and delivers instantaneous results," said Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
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Templeton told the crowd of about 60 that using E-Verify is "almost like buying something on eBay."
Gov. Nikki Haley mandated E-Verify's implementation in June, signing an amendment to the Illegal Aliens and Private Employment law.
The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suits aiming to block the implementation of a broader law regarding undocumented immigrants in the state.
Templeton informed attendees that "those suits will not affect you at all. The administrative part of the law is still enforceable."
Jim Knight of the Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance warned attendees that the state law was stricter than any in the nation.
"You've probably seen on TV, or read in the papers, about this new (immigration) law in Alabama," Knight said. "But South Carolina's law is the toughest in the country when it's applied to employers."
Knight said businesses will get a six-month grace period, but companies that violate it thereafter face penalties of escalating severity, including the revocation of their license to operate in the state for five years.
The severity of that punishment elicited gasps from several in the crowd.
Knight said E-Verify will be free to use and that employers wouldn't need to examine the citizenship status of existing workers.
Some at the seminar asked Knight about the accuracy of the federal database E-Verify uses.
"Bureaucrats make errors, and the system's not perfect," Knight said. "But it's the best we have at this point."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.