Property managers could be required to verify immigration status of renters

August 11, 2010 

SUMMERVILLE - An ordinance to require apartment managers and employers to verify the immigration status of renters and workers got initial council approval Wednesday, despite pleas from landlords and threats of lawsuits.

If the ordinance gets final approval next month, it would be one of the most restrictive in the nation.

There was little controversy over making employers check immigration status, since both the state and Dorchester County have recently passed similar laws. But there was a lot of argument over making property managers demand more proof of residency from renters.

S.C. Apartment Association President Victoria Cowart warned council the ordinance would cost the town money, as renters avoided Summerville because of the hassle. The town has 7,200 rental units, she said.

"This will hamper our business," she said. "People will turn around and go (somewhere else)."

Charleston Apartment Association President Marysa Raymond warned that the ordinance conflicts with federal fair housing laws. S.C. American Civil Liberties Union Director Victoria Middleton warned that the ordinance would spark a lawsuit in Summerville, as it has in other cities where it was tried.

"We have doubts about the constitutionality of this measure," she said. Town Attorney Mark Stokes recently advised council not to pass the ordinance because of the probability of lawsuits. Councilmen Aaron Brown and Mike Dawson, who voted against the ordinance Wednesday, repeated that warning.

"We've all heard that it's a fool that doesn't take the advice of his attorney," Brown said before the vote.

"There is a tremendous liability involved here. It's going to cost you as taxpayers to defend these lawsuits."

"A lawsuit is not just a possibility; it's a certainty," Dawson said. Councilman Walter Bailey, who proposed the ordinance, brushed off concerns over lawsuits.

"All I'm asking is that people who come to this country stand in line like everybody else ... and become legal," Bailey said. "I'm offended by the intimidation by the ACLU and other groups. If they want to challenge us to a lawsuit, I'll accept that challenge. ... We need to stand up and do what's right."

Mayor Berlin Myers allowed the audience more than hour to express their concerns before the vote. Many residents urged council to move ahead with the ordinance.

"This is about being here with the right papers," Dennis Driggers told council. "Stand up. Don't be scared."

"This country has got to get back to having some backbone and cracking the whip," Timothy Granger said. "I think we need to get back to getting some rules and regulations. ... It's not about profiling, it's about being legal."

Reba Campbell, deputy executive Director of the S.C. Municipal Association, said before the meeting that she didn't know of any other municipality in South Carolina considering a similar ordinance.

Bailey recently said he based on the ordinance on a similar move in Fremont, Neb. Fremont's law was supposed to go into effect the last of July, but the city suspended it pending the outcome of lawsuits by the ACLU of Nebraska and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Judges also struck down similar measures in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas.

An Arizona immigration law went into effect last month. But a provision that requires police to check the immigration status of everyone they stop is on hold after a judge said it was unconstitutional.

The South Carolina Illegal Immigration Reform Act was passed in 2008. The act increases requirements on employers to verify the work eligibility status of newly hired workers and denies many public benefits for illegal immigrants.

States, counties and municipalities are filling the void because the last immigration reform efforts in Congress in 2005 fell flat. About 1,000 immigrations bills have been brought up in state legislatures so far this year, CCN reported in April, citing the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or dmunday@postandcourier.com.

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