TALLAHASSEE — Score one for business in the latest round of debate over proposed immigration reform in the Florida Senate.
A committee Monday relaxed a requirement that the state and all private employers check the immigration status of any prospective employee by using the federal government's e-Verify system.
The condition, a favorite among tea party types who supported Gov. Rick Scott, faced stiff opposition from big business, agricultural interests and immigration advocates who questioned e-Verify's effectiveness.
Under the new version of the bill, sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, employers would be able to bypass e-Verify by requiring new hires to present identifying documents such as an unexpired U.S. passport or Florida driver's license, which are not issued to undocumented workers.
But that doesn't mean that the bill, one of several Arizona-style proposals making their way through the Legislature this session, has appeased all of its critics. They fear other provisions in the law would result in racial profiling by law enforcement officers empowered to enforce federal immigration regulations.
"This is not the way to do immigration reform," said Susana Barciela of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. She spoke at a rally Monday held by a broad coalition of religious and immigration leaders outside Trinity Episcopal Church in Miami.
Last week, a group of church leaders from across the state, including Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to reject immigration bills.
Immigration advocates and other opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also held a news conference and testified against the bill Monday in Tallahassee.
They focused their criticism on asking local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they arrest, a practice police departments in most large, urban settings have rejected because it deters victims or witnesses of crime from coming forward. Another immigration bill approved by a House committee last week would require police to check the status of a person who is under arrest or the subject of a criminal investigation.
Polls have shown tackling illegal immigration is popular among most voters — except Hispanics, a crucial voting bloc in Florida.
Flores' Senate bill would require all sheriffs and police departments to request the power to enforce immigration laws from the federal government — if the local agencies find the practice "feasible" to implement. Only three Florida counties have those powers now: Bay, Collier and Duval.
A report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last year found the practice riddled with problems, though the department has since made changes to its rules.
Business groups' opposition centered on e-Verify, which federal experts have warned should not be used for screening job seekers because the system was not created for that purpose. Tea partiers, who flocked to Scott when he campaigned for an illegal immigration crackdown during last year's gubernatorial primary, strongly favored mandating the system.
"Failure to pass and implement mandatory e-Verify will cause Florida to become a magnet for illegals self-deporting from other states implementing immigration laws like Georgia," said Julie Hood, a board member of the Tea Party Manatee group based in Bradenton.
The bill would still suspend the license of employers not checking if employees are legally eligible to work, whether they use e-Verify or other documents.
Flores asked for the revision to loosen the e-Verify requirement at a Senate Judiciary Committee where she also proposed other changes. Among them was tweaking the title of the bill from one dealing with "unauthorized aliens" to "unauthorized immigrants," a phrase more palatable for immigration advocates.
Miami Herald staff writer Jaweed Kaleem and WLRN-Miami Herald News reporter Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this report.