TALLAHASSEE — When Sen. J.D. Alexander ran into a throng of ubiquitous immigration advocates in the halls of the Florida Senate on Monday, he made an unusual admission: He plans to vote against a provision in an immigration bill he has been tasked with handling but doesn't much like.
"Can you vote against the bill?" a protester asked the powerful Senate budget chief.
"Probably not," Alexander said. "But I'm against e-Verify."
Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican, opposes requiring employers to use the federal government's e-Verify system to check a prospective hire's work status. He uses e-Verify himself as a citrus grower — and, Alexander has said, the system is expensive and glitchy.
The fate of SB 2040, which was scheduled for a vote Monday and then was pushed back to today, hangs in the balance in the Senate, where leaders must weigh conflicting interests exemplified by the very senators who have tried to shepherd the bill through the chamber.
Last week, Senate President Mike Haridopolos dropped the bill on Alexander's lap after yanking it from Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who had initially put forth the measure. A Cuban-American, she could no longer back it after Haridopolos pushed for a more hard-line stance on cracking down illegal immigration.
Alexander, meanwhile, told reporters late Friday that e-Verify costs his business about $20 per person that doesn't match the database. And, he said, he's short about 100 people to pick a blueberry crop.
"For all the unemployment, there just are not folks who want to come out and pick blueberries," Alexander said, for about $9 an hour.
"I'm not doing any employer verification (in the bill)," he added on Monday, after Margarita Romo, a pastor from Dade City, held his hands and prayed for him in the hallway.
"Many of these families have been here for more than a decade on a wink-wink, nudge-nudge basis. I find it morally wrong to mess with their status now."
His concerns echoed those of the state's powerful agricultural industry, which fiercely opposes the bill. So do big business, Disney, law enforcement officials and immigration advocates.
Immigrants have flooded the state Capitol for weeks, marginalizing lobbyists to the edges of the fourth-floor rotunda where they usually gather. On Monday, they lined the entrance to the Senate, praying, singing and carrying signs that read "Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You" and "I am Florida."
The advocates also held a news conference featuring the legislative black caucus, NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization of Women, the Florida Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it was getting a legal team together with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center to sue any anti-immigration measure.
But weakening the e-Verify mandate — already only an alternative for employers in the Senate proposal — upsets tea-party types whom Haridopolos, running in a crowded Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, is eager to court. A handful of grass roots conservatives silently walked the halls last week, wearing "Pass e-Verify" stickers.
Haridopolos told reporters Monday that he supports having employers and the state use e-Verify and deporting undocumented immigrants who are convicted of a crime. Being arrested could trigger an immigration status check, he added.
"If you don't break the law, you're not going to get in any trouble," Haridopolos said.
"This is a severely complicated, complex issue where there are hundreds of different people that have hundreds of different opinions," Flores said. "There are employment provisions. There are law enforcement provisions. There are business owner provisions."
Flores said there are "individual human emotions" to consider — something Alexander agrees with. But, he said, something needs to be done.
"If someone's stopped because they have a little pigment in their skin, I don't think that's right," he said. "But if someone breaks the law and is arrested, Mirandized and booked, I don't think it's unreasonable to check their immigration status."
Times/Herald staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com.