BEAUFORT, S.C. – A company that knowingly hires illegal immigrants could lose its business license under a county law given final approval Wednesday evening.
Beaufort County Council unanimously approved the local law, dubbed the "Lawful Employment Ordinance," 9-0, following a public hearing. It is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2008.
Under the ordinance, people who apply for a county business license must sign a form verifying, under penalty of perjury, they do not knowingly employ or plan to hire an illegal immigrant. Licensed companies would be subject to county audits of their employees' documentation.
Details of the random audit process are yet to be worked out, but a council committee suggested annual audits for 25 percent of the roughly 5,000 businesses licensed with the county. That would cost an estimated $210,000 and require an additional six employees, said Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic.
People critical of the ordinance spoke at the public meeting.
"In Beaufort County, if you are Hispanic or even look Hispanic, whether you are legal or not, you can expect to be treated differently," Chris Gomez, who owns Gomez Realty Group on Hilton Head Island and is part of a coalition of businesses opposed to the ordinance, said in The (Beaufort) Gazette.
Gomez then held up a sign from S.C. 170 that read "REWARD" in bold red letters followed by "Report Illegal Aliens or Untaxed Labor" and 800 numbers for federal agencies. Gomez said the sign showed how racial tensions against Hispanics are increasing.
Councilman Bill McBride said racism was not the intention of the ordinance. "For a lot of people, it's an unknown ... I think the negative consequences will not be as bad as people think," McBride said.
Five of the six incoming council members — Jerry Stewart, Laura Von Harten, Paul Sommerville, Rick Caporale and Stu Rodman — sent a letter to the council saying the ordinance was rushed through. Those five, along with Steven Baer, will be sworn into office Tuesday.
Outgoing councilman Mark Generales sais it was within the new group's power to alter the ordinance when they took office.
The proposal had changed significantly since its introduction in September, and the council called a special meeting to vote on the issue before the six new members joined the panel.
The proposal initially allowed complaints to drive investigations — a system opponents said was susceptible to abuse — and encouraged businesses to enroll in a free federal program to verify employees' immigration statuses. Those were removed from the ordinance after council members received closed-door legal advice.
Hispanic and business groups, including construction firms, restaurants and hotels, had called the law unconstitutional and questioned how the ordinance would be enforced and its affects on the economy.
The revised ordinance passed 9-1 earlier this month, setting up Wednesday's final vote.
"It still leaves major questions unanswered," said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. Clark said it's "going to be extremely difficult" for one community to resolve an issue being debated nationally.
Carlotta Ungaro, president of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, calls the revised proposal unnecessary. She said business owners already sign statements saying they won't hire illegal immigrants.
And many businesses operate in Beaufort County without a license, so the ordinance would unfairly burden owners "trying to do the right thing," she said.
Kubic welcomed the chamber's help in finding unlicensed businesses.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," he said.