Immigration Issue Stalls County Business Licence Plan

Immigration issue stalls county business license plan
Amendment ignites Hispanic opposition to ordinance that gives sheriff power to shut down violators

By Ben Szobody
The Greenville News (SC), April 13, 2009

A flood of opposition from Latino business leaders has stalled a county proposal to require all businesses to register for the first time in part because owners would also have to sign an affidavit saying they don't employ illegal immigrants.

The proposed ordinance was initially designed to require all businesses outside city limits to pay a $15 annual fee to register with the county, creating what proponents said would be a tool the sheriff could use to shut down those that spawn crime and repeated code violations by revoking the registration.

However, a recent amendment by Councilman Sid Cates added a clause that would revoke the license if a company employs illegal immigrants, and it requires business owners to sign a statement under penalty of perjury stating that they don't.

Wilfredo Leon, publisher of Latino Newspaper, said that goes beyond the new state law, may not be constitutional and amounts to intimidation of the Latino community because it singles out one law for special treatment in Greenville County.

Cates said he's not aiming at the Latino community, but at businesses that take advantage of illegal immigrants. He said the affidavit requirement is a step beyond state law and he believes the county needs a stronger and more rapid enforcement method.

Leon, who delivered 500 opposition letters to Councilwoman Judy Gilstrap, said business owners should be required to follow all laws, and putting one law on an affidavit is an offensive move that would be like forcing a new employee to certify he's not racist.

He also questioned how the county would determine how many police calls or code violations are enough to shut down a business, and how police would hold an owner responsible for all calls around his business.

Councilwoman Judy Gilstrap, who proposed the initial ordinance two years ago, said the immigration part would be redundant and do nothing to enhance enforcement under state law while inflaming the Hispanic community.

'They used the word 'racial' to me,' Gilstrap said. 'They feel that they have been singled out.'

Council Chairman Butch Kirven said the immigration provision is an example of a tendency by some council members to 'overload' legislation with 'superfluous items based on your political philosophy.'

If council members want to deal with illegal immigration specifically, he said, it should be taken up separately.

Gilstrap said the other provisions in the business registration bill are vital to improve the safety and cleanliness of her western county district but that she's not sure she can support it as long as it contains the immigration section.

Leon said he supports a move to register all county businesses for the first time but added the bill's language needs to be clearer so it can't be used to shut down a company after three calls for police help from its parking lot, for example.

Latino leaders have offered to help a council committee improve the bill, he said.

Cates said he doesn't want the immigration provision dropped, but he also said he's willing to listen to opponents.

If passed, the registration ordinance would require roughly 11,500 local businesses to register with the county — all those that already receive a permit or license from the state to operate. An amendment previously added to the bill would exempt small-time operators who sell snacks or sharpen mower blades from having to register.

The ordinance says the registration could be revoked in case of a large number of police calls, frequent arrests, ongoing litter problems, code violations, a failure to pay taxes or the employment of illegal immigrants. Maximum penalties for violations would be a $200 fine for the first offense and whatever a magistrate decides for additional violations.