Illegal-worker crackdown

A Mount Pleasant landscaper faces a $24,000 state fine for alleged violations of the South Carolina Illegal Immigration Reform Act, officials said Thursday.

Pleasant Places Inc. is the first business in South Carolina to be cited twice for violating the law that went into effect this summer, a state official said.

Since July 1, the state Office of Immigration Worker Compliance has cited 16 businesses for violations of the new law after conducting audits at 550 firms.

Of those cited, only Pleasant Places has failed to correct alleged violations, said Jim Knight, spokesman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The business is accused of failing to verify the legal status of 24 workers hired after July 1, he said. The maximum penalty per violation is $1,000.

On Aug. 11, Pleasant Places was fined $4,250 for violations of the immigrant worker law, according to the immigration office.

Company president Jason James on Aug. 13 certified the business was in compliance with the law governing illegal aliens, and the fine was dismissed.

On Oct. 20, the company was cited for allegedly failing to verify the status of 24 workers and fined $24,000.

The second citation occurred within two years of the first one, so the $24,000 penalty cannot be adjusted even if a good faith compliance effort is demonstrated, Knight said.

However, the company can appeal the citation within 30 days to an administrative law judge, he said.

"We have not heard from them since the (Oct. 20) citation was issued," Knight said.

Efforts to reach James were unsuccessful.

Under the new law, which the General Assembly passed in 2008 as the toughest in the nation, all employers must verify the legal status of new workers by requiring proof of either a South Carolina driver's license or an identification card or motor vehicle license from another state with the same eligibility requirements.

Companies also can use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's online data base, E-verify.

For private businesses such as Pleasant Places, which does some public contracting with the S.C. State Ports Authority and has between 100 and 499 employees, the law took effect July 1.

For all other private businesses and public contractors with fewer than 100 workers, the law takes effect by next July 1.

Before the new law took effect, James said at a local meeting of concerned businessmen that about 90 percent of his labor force is Hispanic. Many of the company's 150 or so workers were longtime employees who would not be affected by the new law because it applied only to new hires.

However, James emphasized that the new law would have an immediate impact on his labor pool.

"Sixty percent of all applicants will be denied (employment) instantly because they will be illegal," James said.

He made his comments last December in a presentation about the Illegal Immigration Reform Act at Trident Technical College's Complex for Economic Development.

He estimated in December that about 30 percent of those applying for work with his company were turned down because of the counterfeit documents they presented.

Sometimes they presented a fake Social Security card with 10 numbers. In other cases, the paperwork was easily flagged as fraudulent, he said.

But sometimes, illegal workers sneaked through the system.

"Some of the IDs are very convincing," he said.