Heed law enforcement on immigration effort

The past week's news on the subject of immigration enforcement illustrates its complexity and why we won't have meaningful immigration reform until federal lawmakers get the job done.

Unless there is a top-down, coordinated enforcement effort, then Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner is right that state efforts largely amount to "feel-good" legislation designed to score political points rather than achieve meaningful enforcement.

And unless state Sen. Tom Davis and his fellow lawmakers can come up with a way to pay for the additional burden on law enforcement agencies, the wherewithal to build facilities to hold people identified as in the country illegally and the power to dictate federal immigration policy, it's difficult to see how they can adequately address the concerns raised by Tanner and other law enforcement officials.

Tanner should be listened to. The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is one of only four law enforcement agencies in the state enrolled in the federal program that trains local agencies and works with them on immigration enforcement. He warns that without federal reform, the proposed law would burden cash-strapped departments and fill already-crowded jails.

Under the proposed law, those found to be in the country illegally would be turned over to federal immigration officials. But with no guarantee of assistance from federal authorities, the effort could be a waste of time and money. Those whose status could not be determined could not be detained.

Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister said most people officers suspect are here illegally are encountered in stops for minor traffic violations. That doesn't meet guidelines for federal involvement.

And that's just one example of the complexity.

Here's another: The state Senate delayed taking action on this year's immigration bill in order to make changes to the state's 2008 immigration reform law. Lawmakers are trying to bring it into line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar Arizona law.

The court ruled it was legal to require businesses to use the federal E-verify program to check a person's immigration status as a condition for holding a business license. South Carolina also allows businesses to use a S.C. driver's license or a license from a list of approved states to verify status.

The court's ruling also raised questions about civil and criminal penalties for violating such a law. As a result, the S.C. Attorney General's Office and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which enforces our law, asked lawmakers to make changes.

The changes would do away with fines and instead threaten to revoke business licenses needed to operate, as well as other filings, such as articles of incorporation. Businesses would be limited to using E-verify.

In the meantime, Gov. Nikki Haley complains that the federal Department of Homeland Security is keeping state auditors from checking businesses' E-verify records after an attorney raised privacy issues. That prompted the state to lay off 22 auditors until the issues can be sorted out.

Catherine Templeton, director of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said she thought the Supreme Court ruling could force Homeland Security to develop a policy that gives states a way to check employers. Until then, proposed changes to state law would allow the agency to respond only to complaints and broadly ask Homeland Security whether a company is using E-verify, rather than determining whether specific workers were checked.

Davis said he recognized the need for federal reform, but wanted the state to "push the envelope" to curb illegal immigration. But that comes at a price if we're going to see any real difference made.