Charlotte – South Carolina's House of Representatives has approved a bill that would require law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of all people they place under arrest.
After Tuesday night's 69-43 vote in the lower house, the measure now must return to the Senate, which approved its own version in March, so that differences between the two bills can be reconciled and a final vote can be scheduled.
The legislative session ends June 2.
Inspired by Arizona's controversial SB 1070 law, aimed at criminalizing undocumented immigrants, the South Carolina measure could go into force on Sept. 1 unless a court challenge requires that its implementation be postponed.
"We're prepared to present a legal action against the bill and prevent it from being applied on the streets," Ivan Segura, vice president of the Council of Mexicans in the Carolinas, told Efe. "However, now we'll focus our efforts on asking the governor to veto it, but we think that in any case she will sign it."
This would be the second time for the South Carolina legislature to approve a measure to combat undocumented immigration.
In 2008, the state approved a law levying fines on companies that hire unauthorized workers and allowing the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants.
Thirty-three of the state's 46 counties are currently working with ICE through the mechanism of programs that are under investigation for not fulfilling their stated objective of tracking down undocumented migrants with criminal records.
"The law would negatively impact the state and its economy and, above all, we would lose the immigrant labor, legal or undocumented, that we need so much and their enormous buying power," Elaine Lacy, a professor and researcher at the University of South Carolina Aiken, told Efe.
South Carolina was the first state in the nation to prohibit the entry of undocumented students to community colleges and state universities and to force companies to use the E-Verify system.
The pending legislation says police must contact immigration authorities to determine the status of individuals detained or arrested for any crime or who are under investigation, including for minor traffic violations.
In addition, it permits citizens to sue counties and municipalities that are not enforcing the law.
It also includes penalties of up to $50,000 for businesses that repeatedly have failed to review the immigration documents of their new employees and continue to hire undocumented foreigners.
SB 20 would also make it a crime for adults - including U.S. citizens - not to carry their identification or immigration documents with them and would create a new police unit to ensure that immigration laws are enforced.
Data from the 2010 Census show South Carolina's Hispanic community increased by 147.7 percent over the past decade to 235,893, representing 5.1 percent of the state's total population.
A study by the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that the number of immigrants without the proper papers in South Carolina fell 21.4 percent - from 70,000 to 55,000 - in part due to the implementation in 2008 of the state's immigration law.