As the top two GOP candidates for S.C. governor try to appeal to Republican voters who want their next governor to be tough on immigration, they also have allowed the state's enforcement of immigration laws to be scaled back.
Catherine Templeton cut staffing for the state's immigration enforcement program — from more than 20 to three — while head of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Meanwhile, Gov. Henry McMaster, whom Templeton is trying to oust in the June 12 GOP primary, has kept immigration enforcement staffing at the lower level set by Templeton. However, a spokesman said McMaster is looking at ways to ensure the enforcement effort is operating "at full capacity as soon as possible."
Templeton, one of four Republicans challenging McMaster in the GOP primary, has touted her role in shaping and pushing amendments to the S.C. Illegal Immigration and Reform Act, signed into law in June 2011 by former Gov. Nikki Haley. She says the changes helped streamline the immigration enforcement program, placing an emphasis on preventing undocumented workers "from getting the job to begin with."
"Throwing bodies at a bad program that was unconstitutional didn't work," Templeton said Thursday. "We actually went in and rewrote a law that was tougher, more constitutional and more efficient."
In 2011, Templeton halted the LLR audit program that checked whether S.C. employers were verifying the legal immigration status of new hires, an attempt to weed out illegal workers. That program had sent out auditors into the field to verify that S.C. employers had proof their workers were residents, not illegal immigrants. But Templeton terminated 22 employees assigned to the immigration enforcement program, effective May 31, 2011, said Jim Knight, deputy director of Immigration Compliance for LLR.
Templeton says some of those positions already were vacant. However, after Templeton's cuts, the enforcement office was reduced to a staff of three — one full-time supervisor and two full-time auditors. Now, the office performs only a small number of on-site inspections of employers, Knight said.
Instead, beginning in January 2012, the office started conducting paper audits, relying on businesses to self-report their compliance with the state's immigration employment laws. On-site audits now primarily are conducted if an employer ignores an audit letter, Knight said.
"Under the old law, all of the audits were conducted on-site," he said. "With a staff of two auditors, you don’t have the time and resources to check an employer to see if he’s making a false statement or an accurate statement."
At the time, Templeton shut down the LLR audit program after a review of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's immigration law and a dispute with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
She said she decided to lay off the 22 employees because of the court ruling and DHS dispute. That dispute centered on the state’s ability to inspect employment documents generated by the federal E-Verify system, which allows employers to determine an applicant's immigration status.
The flap with Homeland Security eventually was settled, and Haley signed changes in the S.C. law into effect on June 27, 2011. Under the amended law, S.C. employers are required to verify the legal status of all new employees through E-Verify within three business days.
But with the enactment of the new state law on Jan. 1, 2012, the budget of LLR's immigration enforcement program was cut to $250,000 from $2 million and staffing was cut to three from more than 20, Knight said. That remains the case today.
A 2017 investigation by The Island Packet found the revamped E-Verify program has failed to stop illegal workers from finding jobs in South Carolina.
Staffing for the immigration enforcement office has not been restored under McMaster, who has made immigration a key issue in his bid for a four-year term.
Instead, McMaster has pushed for a legislative proposal that would force S.C. cities and counties to prove to the State Law Enforcement Division each year that they are not flouting federal immigration laws. South Carolina currently has no sanctuary cities.
“When the governor was made aware of the understaffed immigration unit at LLR, he immediately began looking for solutions," said McMaster press secretary Brian Symmes. "The governor’s office has worked with (LLR) Director (Emily) Farr, (S.C. Department of Public Safety) Director (Leroy) Smith, (SLED) Chief (Mark) Keel and their teams to develop the best way to enhance collaboration, create efficiencies and identify any needed legislation or funding to make sure the state’s anti-illegal immigration enforcement units are operating at full capacity as soon as possible."
The issue is important to South Carolinians.
In the latest Winthrop University poll, S.C. residents said the most important problem facing the country is immigration, followed by racism and politicians/government.