TALLAHASSEE — Can Florida legislators turn their backs on immigration reform?
That is the question hovering over Republicans after Rick Perry's performance in last week's presidential debate and the results of the Florida straw poll, which show that being soft on the issue can imperil Republicans strapped to a primary.
Florida's tea party activists say they will accept nothing short of requiring every employer to check the immigration status of their workers through the federal E-verify program when legislators convene the regular session in January. But armed with the support of Florida's powerful agriculture and business groups, the same legislative leaders who last year promised Arizona-style immigration reform are now barely offering tentative support for it.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos said his chamber is ready to revive a Senate bill, which gives police additional enforcement power. But the watered-down measure does not include E-verify and is too weak for many in the tea party.
Gov. Rick Scott, after requiring state agencies to use E-verify and campaigning for it to be implemented statewide, told the Times/Herald Thursday that his priority is not E-verify but to give law enforcement the ability to check the immigration status of people they stop.
"What we're more interested in is making sure that if someone is in our state illegally and they're doing something illegal that we're able to ask them if they're legal. That's my priority," Scott said.
And House Speaker Dean Cannon, whose chamber proposed but never passed an Arizona-style immigration enforcement plan last year, said that immigration reform may take a back seat to balancing the budget, reapportionment and strengthening the economy.
"It may drop behind the others in terms of jobs and the economy,'' Cannon said. "It's just too soon to tell."
The change of heart comes at the same time legislators are entering one of the most precarious election seasons in a decade. Because of reapportionment, every lawmaker must run in a newly-drawn district and, in some cases, answer to interest groups, ethnic groups and constituents they have not served before. The solution suggested by some Republican leaders is for the Legislature to do nothing now.
"Conservatives need tea party activists excited, but you can't do it by enacting legislation to satisfy a constituency when the country is better served by a different timeline," said Al Cardenas, former head of the Republican Party of Florida who now heads the American Conservative Union.
Cardenas told the Times/Herald he wants the Florida Legislature to take up the issue after the 2012 election or wait until Congress passes pending legislation that would enact a guest worker program to ensure there is no disruption in the labor force of Florida's agriculture industry.
He said the attempts by other states, including Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, to enact immigration reform aimed at compensating for the gap in federal enforcement has been uneven. "You don't want to do something you regret later," Cardenas said.
Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, the House Republican leader, agrees. He said he doubts legislators will be punished for waiting another year to address immigration reform if the federal government fails to tackle it.
"In my opinion, I still believe this will be a federal issue, voters recognize it's a federal issue, and I don't believe there will be an electoral backlash if legislators don't address this issue,'' he said.
Immigration enforcement advocates and tea party activists are not so sure. They see it as a top priority and hope to make it an important campaign issue.
"We are already looking for candidates to run against a state senator and a U.S. rep — incumbents — because they're not doing the job,'' say Jay Jacob of the Baker County Tea Party. "We don't expect them to just come up with something but to come up with something meaningful."
Several tea party groups plan to meet in Tallahassee next week for two days of organizational meetings and meetings with legislators. Their focus is on worksite enforcement over law enforcement, said Jack Oliver, the legislative director for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement. They want the state to use its authority to suspend or revoke the licenses of businesses that hire illegal workers.
Oliver, 61, of Stuart, said he began in the construction trade in 1968 and watched his wages drop by 35 percent as unscrupulous employers hired cheaper labor. "My livelihood has been decimated by the influx of illegal aliens,'' he said. "All it takes is one contractor to start using illegal labor and it has a snowball effect."
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, said she will re-file her bill to require all businesses, no matter what size, to screen all employees through E-verify. She said she understands that 2012 will be a difficult election year, "but we have to look at what's best for Florida, not our individual districts."
Last year, Harrell's bill was wrapped into a larger House bill that required all employers to check the immigration status of all employees, give police the power to charge a foreign national without proper identification papers with a second-degree misdemeanor, and allow police to check the immigration status of anyone subject to a criminal investigation.
Perhaps the most sobering warning for legislators, however, are the numbers that show the extent to which the state depends on an illegal workforce. A July survey of farm workers, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, estimated that 65 percent of the 135,000 to 150,000 farm workers in Florida were unauthorized, said Rob Williams, director of Florida Legal Services' Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee.
"Agriculture is one of the most important industries in the state and there are a lot of jobs dependent on it,'' he said. "The immediate result of a mandatory E-verify law would be to create serious economic dislocation in Florida. ... Agriculture in this state would collapse without this workforce.''
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at MaryEllenKlas