For Coastal Turf owner Russ Settle, compliance with the state's new immigration law isn't a choice — it's comply or stop operating.
With the new immigration law, there is no strike three. By strike two, employers are shut down for at least 10 days and listed on an online database — their own "scarlet letter" advertising a noncompliant status to competitors and clients.
Jim Knight of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance spoke Tuesday to about 40 employers in Summerville, as one of many stops the department has made to help businesses comply with the new regulations, which take effect Jan. 1.
"The South Carolina immigration law, as it pertains to employers, is — in my opinion — the toughest in the country," Knight said.
The law applies to businesses with one or more employees, and has the teeth to revoke business licenses, and not just with the state. The department of labor will also be working closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport the uncovered illegal workforce.
South Carolina businesses will face random audits, and complaint-driven and credible evidence-driven investigations.
The main requirement is mandating all S.C. businesses enroll in E-Verify instead of using I-9 forms, something that Settle, who hires 5 to 10 seasonal workers annually said appeared "fairly easy" to comply with. He wasn't anticipating any extra burden on his business.
However, since E-Verify is strictly online, one employer said it may create a "hardship" on businesses without computers.
The looming law is the second time the state has addressed those hiring immigrant workers.
In 2008, the state passed a bill punishing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Through May of this year, the department of labor audited more than 6,000 businesses, cited 500 employers and moved to shut down five businesses, according to Knight.
One business was closed for a period of 10 days for compliance issues, Knight said.
The 2008 law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Arizona's similar law. Since May, the state has not had any illegal immigration law on the books, aside from the federal regulation.
"We'll be back in business come Jan. 1, enforcing a state immigration law," Knight said.
How Does a Business Become Compliant?
To become compliant, businesses need to take two steps: enroll in the online E-Verify through the Department of Homeland Security, and verify each new hire within three business days.
"It is fast and easy to use — and I always get a snicker when I say something with the federal government is fast and easy," Knight said.
Employers attending Tuesday's meeting who have already enrolled in E-Verify agreed when Knight asked if they found it easy.
Knight also claimed the new system would be less of a burden on employers.
"Here's the beauty of the E-Verify system: as an employer you don't have to be a document expert anymore," Knight said.
Knight was alluding to the employer previously verifying immigration status through use of an I-9 form, which has employers look at photo identification such as a driver's license as proof of residency.
"We saw a lot of South Carolina driver's licenses of super quality that were fraudulent," Knight said.
To enroll in E-Verify, click here.
Unlike the 2008 law, which only revoked an imputed license of operation for noncompliance, the 2012 law will also revoke any agency permit, certification, approval, registration, charter or similar regulation, with the exception of a few businesses such as medical doctors and accountants due to the "red tape," Knight said.
But even when excepted, the imputed license bestowed upon every business in the state would still be revoked.
After the new law takes effect, there will be a grace period until June 30 where noncompliant businesses will get a warning, which consists of complying with regulations in three business days.
Post July 1, first-time violators are put on a one-year probation and required to submit quarterly reports on new hires and verifications. If more than one violation occurs in a three-year period, the employer's license is suspended from 10 to 30 days.
Under the 2008 law, any noncompliance meant employers were listed on the department's "scarlet letter" online database indefinitely. Under the new law, first-time offenders will be listed for six months, but repeat offenders will remain listed indefinitely.
"In small towns, like Summerville, competitors would use that against them," Knight said.
Who Gets E-Verified?
Any new employee must be entered into the E-Verify system after Jan. 1, or once a business has signed up for E-Verify online, Knight said.
While no illegal immigrants are "grandfathered" in the bill, employers cannot enter the current workforce into the E-Verify system, he added. Those employees are still subject to the I-9 documentation.
Knight said even businesses not anticipating making new hires should enroll now since an accident or economic turn-around could suddenly change the business plan.
What Happens to Those Who Knowingly Hire Illegal Immigrants?
According to Knight, there is no probationary period or warning for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Employers will face a license suspension for 10 to 30 days and foot the cost of the investigation. By the fourth occurrence, employers will have their licenses revoked for five years.
Who Can 'Turn In' An Employer?
Perhaps one of the most pressing concerns among employers is who can file a complaint with the department, sparking an audit. Knight said the complaint must come with documentation and be signed by the individual.
If a company is audited following a complaint, Knight said the department will release the complainant's name to the employer upon request.
"We wouldn't take a complaint from someone just saying 'We drove past a job site' … You've got to see the documents; we need some evidence," Knight said.
In addition to the random audits and the complaint-driven investigations, the department will also follow up on leads from ICE's investigations, Knight said.
What About Less Web-Savvy Businesses?
One attendee during Tuesday's presentation called the new regulations a "hardship" for small businesses that might not have a computer.
"We recognize that there would be small businesses that would be challenged," Knight said. "We've been talking with the librarians around the state … (and) staff will be familiar with E-Verify so when an employer comes in they can direct them to a computer."
Want to Learn More?
In the Lowcountry, the next training opportunities are 3 p.m. Wednesday at Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce and 2 p.m. next Tuesday at the Charleston Public Library in downtown Charleston.