(Beaufort County) November 28, 2006 - For more than a decade, Hispanic immigrants have been streaming into South Carolina. Most are from Mexico, here illegally. Their impact on the state is still being studied. But some political leaders are convinced government needs to take steps now.
In a Senate committee room, there's frustration, even a touch of anger.
"Between 85 to 95 percent of the Hispanics in Hilton Head and Beaufort County are illegal. Illegal!" says Ebba Gamer of Citizens for a Better Community. "It's very, very bad. They don't respect any of our laws, any of our laws."
Those remarks are part of the information gathered by lawmakers trying to figure out what - if anything - South Carolina government can do to curb illegal immigration. The Senate subcommittee is working on legislation that could, for instance, require public agencies and contractors to verify the citizenship of employees.
Some of the strongest support for a crackdown on illegals comes from Beaufort County. Starlette Hairston of the Beaufort County Council says, "In our jails right now in Beaufort County we have over 40 illegal aliens at a cost of $60 per day, which is passed on to the taxpayers. Our schools in Beaufort County have increased over 100 percent of children believed to be children of illegal immigrants. The cost is staggering. Our hospitals are strained to the maximum."
Beaufort Council members aren't waiting for the state to act. They are close to taking a final vote on an 18-page long lawful employment ordinance. It's designed to take away job opportunities for illegal immigrants by suspending the licenses of businesses that knowingly hire them.
At its meeting Monday night, the council also voted for a resolution criticizing the federal government for failing to enforce immigration laws.
Federal laws and rulings force public schools to educate children of illegals. And the rules require hospitals to provide healthcare.
That includes having special signs at Newberry County Memorial, interpreters, and specially trained staff. Lynn Beasley of Newberry County Hospital talks about the extra efforts, "We have to make sure and document that we understand the cultural differences as well as the language differences."
But local and state governments can only do so much, as Sen. Jim Ritchie (R-Spartanburg) knows, "We recognize in this committee that there are certain legal limitations that the states have in this issue. And we look forward to the federal government stepping in at some point."
Sen. Ronnie Cromer (R-Newberry) takes a similar stance, "There are a limited number of things that we can do as a state. Because we can't go out and change the federal laws of course, the only thing we can do is work within what the federal laws have given us."
In Newberry, Sheriff Lee Foster has long understood the challenges presented by the Hispanics moving into his county. "Yes, I think there's a huge illegal population."
For years, his department has included Spanish-speaking employees. Foster says they're essential to unravel crimes involving another culture. "They have a tendency to be victimized as in robberies, where people, they're walking down the road and someone may rob them. Home entries, also through a lot of frauds and scams and schemes that people will play on them."
Foster's understanding is partly personal. His adopted son is from guatemala. Now a 12-year-old honor student and budding computer expert, Joseph once lived in a mud house.
The sheriff says helping Joseph become a South Carolinian has been better for his new family than for Joseph himself.
The sheriff's son of course, is here legally.
Immigration is one of the most polarizing topics on the national landscape these days.
Our immigration series has brought some strong reaction. Greg Summers writes, "When my children started attending school, they had to show a birth certificate and immunization records. Why wouldn't immigrants have to do the same?"
And June Venable says, "While America slept, we were invaded and colonized. And no one did anything about it."
We can expect that debate to continue next year, when lawmakers consider the legislation under study by the Senate Judiciary Panel.
Reported by Jack Kuenzie