Lawmakers: Immigration is one of the top issues this year
By SEANNA ADCOX
Associated Press Writer
Jan 3, 6:05 PM EST
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Legislators said Thursday that immigration reform will be one of their top priorities in the election-year session that starts next week.
Lawmakers criticized Congress for failing to confront illegal immigration and passing on to states the cost of educating, treating, protecting and imprisoning people not here legally.
If local or state police arrest an illegal immigrant, the state is powerless to deport them, said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell.
“It's like Washington fiddles while state budgets burn,” said the Charleston Republican. “There is only so much we can do.”
House Minority Leader Harry Ott said illegal immigrants convicted of a crime should not be released in South Carolina after serving their prison sentence.
“Most citizens would be shocked to hear we turn them loose,” said the St. Matthews Democrat.
But while support for immigration reform is bipartisan, it is not unanimous.
The state's top industry – tourism – would shut down if all undocumented workers returned to their native country, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Lawmakers are making it the No. 1 issue only because it's a hot topic in an election year, he said.
“So we're going to pound our chests. But it's ridiculous for us to spend a whole lot of time on something we have no control over anyway,” Hutto said. “Until we make Washington do it, we're just kidding around if we think we're going to do it.”
The latest Census estimate puts South Carolina's Hispanic and Latino population at roughly 130,000. But advocates say it's probably more than three times that number.
In the past two years, the House and Senate have separately passed measures meant to clamp down on illegal immigration. But they did not clear both chambers. Because it's the second of a two-year session, debate on bills last year will pick up where it left off last June.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he expects both chambers to act quickly.
The proposals include requiring any business contracted by state and local governments to check the legal status of their employees through a federal program and making government agencies verify the status of anyone over 18 seeking public assistance. One bill would make it a felony for harboring or transporting illegal immigrants.
More immigration proposals were filed for the coming session.
Ott said he agreed businesses that deliberately break the law by hiring illegal immigrants should be punished, but the state should be careful not to penalize businesses that unknowingly hire illegals with fraudulent paperwork.
McConnell guaranteed the Senate will take up his English-only bill, which would require that all government paperwork and videos only use English. He wants to prohibit the Department of Motor Vehicles from distributing driver's manuals in Spanish and offering driver's license tests in German, French and Spanish.
In filing the bill last month, McConnell made good on his promise to try to force the agency to stop giving the tests in foreign languages if they didn't stop voluntarily. He said he's heard from many constituents who agree with him.
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