Local farmers worry about immigration law

Gov. Nikki Haley signed a tougher illegal immigration bill on June 27 that was immediately protested by critics, who said they plan to file lawsuits against the state.

The bill requires police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. The check has to follow an arrest or traffic stop for some other violation and the officer must have probable cause for suspicion.

Proponents of the bill said it will be an effective way to cut down on the increased use of illegal immigrants in all areas of the business world.

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, a co-sponsor of the bill, told a Greenville news station that they have to find a way to get illegal immigration under control.

Opponents, however, argue that it will create a hostile atmosphere where people are targeted based on how they look or talk.

One of the dissenting voices was Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, who organized with other legislators to try to defeat the bill. In speaking out against the action, he told news sources that he considered the bill racist, mean and punitive.

Many S.C. farmers said they are already struggling under earlier immigration laws and this bill will only make it harder to get their fruits and vegetables out of the fields.

Pete Ambrose, who has a farm on Johns Island, said, “It’s a horror story on our end.”

He told tales of friends who have lost their farms, and others who are struggling to keep them. One farmer watched his entire crop rot in the sun last summer because he couldn’t find workers, and this year was almost a repeat situation.

Ambrose himself was one of the largest producers of tomatoes on Johns Island until recently. He said a hostile environment toward migrants, along with other factors, has made it almost impossible to get a crop to market.

“I can’t get anyone else to pick vegetables — I’ve tried. The only ones who will are illegal aliens,” he said.

A few years ago, Ambrose said he reached a point where he was afraid his family was going to lose the farm, so he gave up the tomato crop and now sells strictly to restaurants and through the CSA program.

“I wish the politicians would understand that if we don’t have the migrants to work, we’ll starve to death, or we’ll be buying all our food from China,” Ambrose said.

Passage of the bill makes South Carolina the fifth state to adopt such laws, after Utah, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona.

Supporters say short-term upheaval in the labor market, such as that experienced by farmers, will be offset by easing the pressure on schools, jails, and social services.

Other groups disagree. A spokesperson for the ACLU told reporters they will join with other groups to file a lawsuit against the bill before it goes into effect Jan. 1, 2012.

Two migrants who spoke to The Miscellany on condition of anonymity said they are already afraid to be in the state, but take the risk because they are desperate for work.

Unable to support themselves in Mexico, the women and their husbands walked through the desert to the United States. Left behind were their children, ages 6 to 14, who are staying with their grandmothers.

One woman blinked back tears, saying they haven’t been home in four years; their only contact through phone calls. She said they travel a migrant circuit with their husbands and send most of their earnings home to Mexico.

Based on the new law, both the migrants and whoever hires them will be breaking the law, which requires all businesses to check the legal status of anyone they hire by using the online federal E-Verify system.

Under the 2008 S.C. Immigration Reform Act, businesses could use the E-Verify program or a driver’s license.

The bill will also add 10 officers to the Department of Public Safety, who will act as an illegal immigration police force. Those officers will have to receive training on how to conduct checks, plus the state will have to determine where to hold suspected illegal immigrants. The law says any suspect who fails to provide documentation can be held by police until their citizenship status is determined. Federal law requires detainment in a facility that is federally approved for that purpose. South Carolina currently has three such facilities.

The Catholic Church has opposed the immigration bill since its inception.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone issued a statement earlier this year, saying that the restrictive legislation could jeopardize family life and lead to a general mistrust of people who should be treated as brothers and sisters.

“The immigration system in our country is broken, but let us strive to fix it in ways that none of God’s children be hurt and in ways that will be just and compassionate,” he said.

Upon hearing that the bill had been signed by the governor, Bishop Guglielmone said he was disappointed.

“It will do little to solve the problems of the immigration mess, and it has the potential of creating lots of collateral damage to many: the possibility of family breakup in the lives of the undocumented; potential losses in the workforce that immigrants have been providing; reticence of the undocumented in calling police to deal with serious crime. Until the federal government is willing to seriously deal with immigration policy, we will continue to see states come up with various laws that will not solve the problem.”

Immigration laws have been rejected or failed to advance during the 2011 legislative session in California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming.