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The Associated Press August 27, 2010, 5:58PM ET

SC agency finds 35 illegal workers at school sites

State investigators have identified nearly three dozen illegal immigrants working at school construction sites in one South Carolina county, and fined a company, officials announced Friday.

The state agency overseeing South Carolina's illegal immigration law reported that five subcontractors have been cited for employing 35 illegal workers -- 32 of them identified since the 2008 law began applying to all businesses July 1.

The investigation at public school construction sites in Pickens County began in November, following complaints from residents and contractors not hired for the jobs. But the scope was initially limited, since the law applied then only to employers with more than 100 workers, said Jim Knight, head of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance.

He expects more illegal workers to be identified as the investigation continues.

State Sen. Larry Martin said it was unacceptable for local property taxes to pay the salaries of illegal workers when so many South Carolinians are out of work. The state's jobless rate was 10.8 percent in July.

"The taxpayers of Pickens County are paying a hefty sum in taxes to provide for those school buildings, and the taxpayers expect and ought to expect those buildings be built by legal employees," said Martin, R-Pickens.

The projects are part of the school district's $365 million building program that includes seven new schools.

County schools chief Henry Hunt said district officials are upset at the general contractors, which were sent reminder letters about ensuring all onsite workers were legal, and had signed contracts saying they would. The district's relying on the state for help, he said.

"I feel like they've been given plenty of warning," Hunt said, adding the district will consult its attorney.

The general contractors and most of the more than 40 subcontractors investigated so far checked out OK. All 35 identified illegal workers were fired, and in each case, the state notified the federal immigration agency, Knight said. The state labor agency can't arrest anyone.

Considered one of the nation's toughest when passed, the state's anti-illegal immigration law bars businesses from employing illegal workers. It also requires they check new hires through a federal database or hire only workers who hold a driver's license from South Carolina or other approved state. Otherwise they could face fines of up to $1,000 per worker, and a business repeatedly found to knowingly employ an illegal worker could be closed for months.

However, fines are waived for first-time violators who correct the problem within three days.

Only Michigan-based Kent Companies has been fined in the Pickens County investigation. The concrete company, which operates in the Carolinas out of Fort Mill, was cited in May for employing three illegal workers. It must pay $850 after a follow-up investigation found it didn't check the status of a new hire, Knight said.

A message left with the company was not immediately returned.

In the law's first year, 10 auditors checked 1,850 businesses and found 175 had broken the law. Most violations involved failing to verify workers within five days of hiring them. Auditors found illegal workers in 10 cases, but only one company was fined, according to the state agency.

Its Office of Immigrant Worker Compliance has more than doubled its number of investigators, to 23, as 110,000 additional businesses fell under the law. Though investigators randomly check all companies, auditors focus on businesses that traditionally employ illegal workers such as landscaping and construction firms, hotels, restaurants and chicken processors.

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