TALLAHASSEE — In an emotional debate where senators choked up and recalled the struggles of their immigrant forebears, the Florida Senate on Tuesday unexpectedly defeated one of Gov. Rick Scott's pledges to crack down on illegal immigration.
The 23-16 vote to defeat the amendment to institute E-Verify, the federal government's system to check a worker's immigration status, could ultimately doom any immigration crackdown.
The annual legislative session ends Friday, and members of the House say they won't take a watered-down immigration bill without a stronger E-Verify component.
"The process does not really allow for a piece of legislation like this to come in the waning hours," said Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, a mild-mannered former Miami-Dade police officer and the bill's House sponsor.
He called the possibility of the House taking up the Senate's immigration bill "improbable." The Senate might wait on the House to take up the measure. The House might wait for the Senate. So the bill itself could be dead because the E-Verify amendment was killed.
If Tuesday's vote on E-Verify is any indication, the bill's passage isn't certain in the Senate.
"I couldn't vote for this in a million years," said Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat who fought back tears as she told of growing up with her grandparents who didn't speak English.
Just before his E-Verify amendment was defeated, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said it was needed to prevent terrorism. Had E-Verify been used, he claimed, some of the 9/11 hijackers who lived in Florida might have been caught. (PolitiFact Florida rated his assertion Pants on Fire.)
Thrasher's amendment would have required all state agencies to use E-Verify — and imposed a fine on any employer found to have hired an undocumented immigrant.
The bill would limit the use of E-Verify to state workforce agencies recommending candidates for employment and to applications for any government benefits. Law enforcement would also have to check the immigration status of a person who has been arrested. The House has a stricter immigration proposal, HB 7089.
In the Senate, proponents of the E-Verify plan included Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who recounted how his maternal grandparents settled in the Red River Valley in North Dakota, where Gaetz's mother was born in a sod house.
"I understand a little bit about immigrant roots," Gaetz said.
The vote against E-Verify could pose political troubles for Haridopolos, the Republican Senate president from Merritt Island who is running for the U.S. Senate. Haridopolos did not vow to impose the federal system on private employers, but tea party conservatives wanted an Arizona-style law with E-Verify.
Haridopolos was on the losing side of a vote that he said was "not really" surprising, though he thought it would be closer.
"I've proven on many different times I'm not a dictator," he said, noting members vote their will.
To grass roots Republicans, he said he would point out that his chamber is fiscally conservative, having cut spending and taxes.
The linchpin behind the defeat of the E-Verify amendment was one of the most respected Republican members of the chamber, Sen. J.D. Alexander.
A Central Florida farmer from Lake Wales, Alexander was handed the bill after Haridopolos yanked it from Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who was not willing to accept a more hard-line immigration stance. On Tuesday, the legislative Hispanic caucus officially opposed the Senate and House bills.
Operating on just four hours of sleep after marathon budget talks, Alexander gave an impassioned speech about the difficulties of farming and the families of migrant laborers who struggle to make their children a part of the American dream.
"I resent that I have to be asked to choose between hardworking people and somebody's uninformed knowledge," said Alexander, giving his captivated colleagues a firsthand account of housing guest workers from Mexico who picked his crops two years ago. "You can't get anybody to come do this stuff, folks. And it's the same thing, whether it's construction, or whether it's hotels. Americans don't want to do it."
After session was over Tuesday, Alexander acknowledged the bill could run out of time.
"I'd rather get it right than move it quickly," he said. "It's getting awfully late in the process."
The vote was a big defeat for Scott, who made E-Verify a top priority during his Republican primary race, saying that all businesses in the state should use the program.
Scott had also promised an Arizona-style immigration law that essentially required local police to double as immigration agents. Amid fears of racial profiling, the Senate refused to take up that provision.
Told on Tuesday the Senate bill did not include E-Verify, Scott declined comment, saying he wanted to read the bill. Instead, he repeated his insistence for a law that lets local law enforcement check people's immigration status.
"If they're doing something wrong, they ought to be asked if they're legal or not," he said. "It's got to be fair and there can't be any racial profiling."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at email@example.com.