Defenders of Hispanics in South Carolina warn that the law obliging companies to check the immigration status of new employees will spark discrimination against the community.

"A separate class of workers is already being created," Roberto Belen, a member of the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council, said, because "an employer, to keep out of trouble, will prefer to hire an applicant named Smith rather than Perez, even if the latter has all his papers in order."

After the enactment in 2008 of a state immigration law requiring companies to use the federal E-Verify program to determine whether workers are in the country legally, South Carolina authorities have been gradually instructing businesses on implementing the new regulation.

From Sunday on, all companies in the state must comply with the requirement or face penalties that include suspension of the operating licences for firms that repeatedly hire undocumented workers.

Figures from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, known as LLR, show that close to 1,997 companies were audited at random from the beginning of the year up to April 30, and that 92 percent had complied with the measure.

"This is nothing new, it's part of South Carolina's general immigration law which has gradually been applied. The worry now is the penalties, particularly on small businesses that lack human-resources personnel," Ivan Segura of the Council of Mexicans in the Carolinas told Efe Monday.

"We're concerned about administrative errors such as, for example, the Hispanic custom of using two surnames, and if people who submit that identification to E-Verify are not familiar with that practice, the applicant could be rejected," he said.

Segura said that while the law demands the checking of all new job applicants, Hispanics run a greater risk of being rejected in the process.

"If there is confusion or a mistake, what company employees do is reject the Hispanic applicant because he could be undocumented, but if another applicant who is not Hispanic does not pass E-Verify for some reason, they simply repeat the process. That is discrimination and it is happening," Segura said.

Belen, who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2007, said that the current situation for Latino workers in South Carolina is difficult "with or without documents."

The activist, who worked on the 2010 Census, said that the count showed that only one in every five Hispanics in the state is undocumented, contrary to the perception of ordinary citizens that "everyone in this community is undocumented."

"People put up with abuse to keep their jobs and it's even getting hard to find employment in places that require little in the way of education, just because of having a Hispanic surname. Some have even left the state," he said. EFE