Regardless of who voters name as the state's next chief executive, Florida's latest strategy for countering illegal immigration will likely play out not along its borders, but in its boardrooms.
Florida's four leading gubernatorial candidates want businesses to use E-Verify, a federal online employee verification database, to weed out unauthorized workers.
This would be a dramatic change for some of the state's largest industries and its sprawling immigrant communities.
Candidates of every allegiance are rallying behind an E-Verify mandate as a means of addressing illegal immigration amid soaring unemployment rates and national security concerns.
"If our ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of illegal immigration into the United States and, of course, Florida, then we have to accept the reality that it is jobs that are the big draw," said state Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, who has drafted a bill that calls on all businesses to use E-Verify.
Opponents caution that the system is not entirely reliable, and some legal workers could find themselves out of a job. And they question the wisdom of making employers responsible for enforcing federal border laws.
But the system is rapidly taking root. Free and fast, E-Verify has become an increasingly popular business tool, with the federal government and a handful of states promoting its use through both volunteer drives and mandatory enforcement.
It works like this: Employers submit information provided by newly hired employees on I-9 forms, such as names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers, to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. That information is checked against federal databases.
More than 96.9 percent of workers are approved immediately. But some require additional review.
If any of the employee's personal information does not match information contained in a federal database, the employee is flagged as a "tentative nonconfirmation." That might happen if an employee uses a Social Security number that belongs to someone else, but it also could happen if, say, a newlywed didn't properly change his or her new last name, or if a clerk made a typographical error.
Nonconfirmed workers have eight work days to contest the finding. The government then issues a "final nonconfirmation." At that point, if the employee's new boss allows the person to stay on, the company could be fined for intentionally hiring an unauthorized worker.
Roughly a dozen states have ushered in E-Verify mandates since 2007, with Colorado, Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi leading the way. The federal government began requiring its agencies to verify hires through E-Verify in 2007.
More than 219,118 employers at 779,835 work sites have used E-Verify so far this year, compared with 179,140 employers who used it during 2009.
In Florida, 9,148 employers at 34,010 work sites have used the program this year. Fewer than 900 employers used E-Verify in 2006.
"Employers are concerned about hiring unauthorized workers, and they want to do the right thing," said Sharon Scheidhauer, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman. "More and more employers are realizing they have everything to win by using E-Verify and nothing to lose."
All of the major gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Alex Sink, independent Bud Chiles and Republicans Bill McCollum and Rick Scott — have confirmed their support for an E-Verify mandate.
"The federal government has failed to secure our borders and we have illegal immigrants who are entering our state and taking Florida jobs," said Jen Baker, spokeswoman for Scott, who vows to penalize businesses that hire undocumented workers.
McCollum helped craft Snyder's Arizona-style immigration bill, which would require E-Verify. Under that legislation, a business found guilty of breaking the law may lose its license for up to 10 days. The license would be revoked after a second offense.
Skeptics warn, however, that E-Verify is no magic salve. The program is hounded by charges of inaccuracy from business leaders, union stewards and immigration advocates alike. Economists and business leaders fear a legal mandate would especially hurt Florida's massive agriculture, construction and hospitality industries, all of which rely heavily on both legal and illegal immigrant workers.
"The entire system is broken and you can't fix it with a piecemeal approach," said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the industry group Florida Citrus Mutual. "Making growers be immigration agents is unfair and it is a flawed system."
Immigrant advocates also worry that the mandate would encourage employers to further circumvent federal laws by paying cash wages, or "hiring under the table," which would also allow them to avoid many payroll obligations and taxes.
Illegal immigrants, "are not going to go back to Central and South America," said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Florida International University professor and federal immigration hearing interpreter. "They are going to dig in and weather the storm, surviving however they can."
Overall, 4 percent of E-Verify's responses were found faulty in a 2008 independent review of the service. Most of these errors involved undocumented workers who were found eligible to work. Less than 1 percent involved legal workers who were initially declared unauthorized. Critics, however, say the error rate is much higher.
"The real impact would be from the loss of the work force," said Alan Hodges, an economist and scientist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. "If half of the work force in the agriculture sector goes away, there is going to be a lot of work that just doesn't get done, crops that don't get picked."
Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said government leaders should instead be pushing for more temporary work visas that would make in-demand laborers legal.
And there's the cost.
Previous legislation calling for E-Verify prompted the state's employment referral service to review the practical realities of such a mandate. It found the program would cost the department up to $15 million and eat up the workdays of its administrative staff.
Private employers would face similar challenges, said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.
"The founders of this country would roll in their graves to think that the federal government would get a say in who should be hired by private businesses," he said.
Still, proponents said any new human resources hurdles are worth the peace of mind that comes with employing a legal work force.
Dunkin' Donuts has required all franchisees to use E-Verify since 2006.
"E-Verify is an effective solution that is cost effective, fast and removes the guesswork from document review during the I-9 process," company spokeswoman McCall Gosselin said. "The program helps protect the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins brands and is in the best interest of the Dunkin' Brands system."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.