TALLAHASSEE — Republican Sen. John Thrasher came to the Senate floor Tuesday to try to put teeth back into a watered-down immigration bill.
And he came armed with a powerful argument.
The bill — which has been one of the more controversial of the 2011 legislative session — had been stripped of a requirement that private employers use the federal E-Verify system to check a worker's immigration status. Rather than try to restore the mandate, Thrasher wanted to offer employers a strong incentive to voluntarily use the system.
Use it, or risk being fined if you hire an illegal worker — from $500 to $1,500, escalating for repeat offenders.
Several Republicans opposed the amendment, which ultimately failed 23-16. But not before Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, tried to sway votes by saying E-Verify could have prevented the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.
"I want to remind everyone in here that 10 of the 19 terrorists who attacked our country, directed by Osama bin Laden in doing that, lived in the state of Florida," Thrasher said. "I wish we would have had the E-Verify system. . . . We might have saved the lives of 3,000 Americans."
A staggering claim about E-Verify and 9/11. But true?
The E-Verify system is a federal database that compares information from a person's employment paperwork to the Homeland Security Department and Social Security records. Employers use the program to weed out immigrants not eligible to work in this country. Once employers hire workers, they run their names through the E-Verify database. If the records match, the new employees are eligible to work. If they don't match, the database notifies the employers, who must then give the workers eight days to provide sufficient proof of eligibility.
A pilot program of what is now the E-Verify system launched in 1997 in several states, including Florida, and the program expanded to all 50 states by 2004. In 2004, 3,500 employers were authorized to use the system. More than 200,000 employers are now registered to use E-Verify.
As for the 9/11 terrorists, Thrasher actually understates the connection to Florida. At least 14 of the 19 hijackers either spent time in Florida, or had Florida driver's licenses or identification cards.
Among the ones living in Florida were three of the four hijackers who piloted the planes. Those pilots received training in Florida.
The question here, however, is if any of the hijackers could have been flagged by the E-Verify system. To do that, they would have needed to try to get a job.
Other than one hijacker, Hani Hanjour, the 9/11 conspirators entered the United States legally by obtaining tourist visas. Hanjour used a student visa. It's important when considering Thrasher's claim because people entering the country on tourist visas are not allowed to work for U.S. employers. E-Verify or no E-Verify.
And the majority of the hijackers, 13 of the 19, entered the country in the spring or summer of 2001, just months before the Sept. 11 attack. That means most of the hijackers would have been here just a few months. Logic suggests they wouldn't have needed jobs.
And, in fact, they did not. The 9/11 Commission, the group formed to better understand the plot and how it could have been prevented, reported that the plotters spent somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to plan and conduct their attack, and that the money came directly from al-Qaida operatives. The commission concluded al-Qaida provided the hijackers "with nearly all of the money they needed to travel to the United States, train, and live." The money arrived either through wire transfers or cash, the commission concluded.
Of all of the hijackers, there is evidence that only one actually worked for a U.S. employer.
Nawaf Al-Hazmi, a hijacker on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, worked at a San Diego-area Texaco station and carwash for about a month in early 2000. Al-Hazmi worked at minimum wage two days a week, the Washington Post reported. Al-Hazmi's employment is corroborated in the 9/11 Commission's findings.
Al-Hazmi was in the country on an expired tourist visa. And he is a hijacker with a Florida connection. Al-Hazmi obtained a Florida driver's license on June 25, 2001, in Palm Beach County.
But that was more than a year after he worked briefly at the California gas station.
Thrasher said that had E-Verify been used by all Florida employers, the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have been prevented.
Hijackers did live in Florida and obtain Florida driver's licenses. But in order to potentially be flagged by the E-Verify system, they would have had to work in the state. There is no record that any of them ever tried to get jobs here. And as such, E-Verify — had it been used by Florida employers as Thrasher wanted — wouldn't have found them or stopped their plotting. We rate this claim Pants on Fire!