There are many reasons why Florida should not copy Arizona's unconstitutional attempt to crack down on illegal immigration. The most obvious flaw is that, like Arizona's law, a plan pushed by Republican legislators and Attorney General Bill McCollum would require police to check the immigration status of anyone legally stopped who is reasonably suspected of being in the country illegally. That would lead to racial profiling, regardless of what the supporters claim. But less understood are other provisions copied from earlier Arizona laws that would create an elaborate new complaint and sanctions process for Florida's businesses, creating an unreasonable burden on both employers and law enforcement.
Illegal immigration is a problem nationally and in Florida, where it is estimated that more than 950,000 illegal immigrants reside. The federal government has not done enough to control the borders or punish employers who hire illegal immigrants. But immigration is a federal issue, and states do not have the resources, expertise or training to take over these functions.
The Florida Immigration Enforcement Act, sponsored by Republican Rep. William Snyder of Stuart, would require the attorney general or the state attorney to investigate any signed complaint against an employer suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, except where the complaint is based solely on race, color or national origin. Anonymous complaints would be welcome, though an investigation wouldn't be required.
The plan also spells out punishment for businesses that knowingly hire an illegal immigrant. The first offense would require employers, during a three-year probation period, to regularly report on their employment practices. They may also lose their business licenses for up to 10 days. Upon a second offense, the licenses are permanently revoked.
But industries like agriculture, construction and tourism that tend to hire large numbers of legal immigrants could be barraged by investigations. Snyder says this won't happen, because no complaint based on someone speaking a foreign language or looking foreign would be investigated. But his assurances are not comforting. Some degree of racial profiling will be unavoidable, and businesses with foreign workers are likely to be targeted.
Of course, Florida businesses should not hire illegal immigrants. But they are a significant force in portions of the state economy, and tougher federal laws on hiring practices have to be accompanied by comprehensive reforms that can offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here. This attempt to tackle part of the problem with a state law would rob police and prosecutors of too much discretion, impose severe, arbitrary sanctions on businesses and divert law enforcement resources from more pressing crime-fighting.
Snyder acknowledges that the legislation is a first draft and will be refined before next spring's legislative session. Some parts of the bill on enhanced employer responsibility may be worth considering, such as requiring private employers to use the federal E-Verify system when screening potential workers. But the initial attempt to solve a federal issue with state legislation in Florida goes too far.