E-Verify is failing to pass again this year. Here’s why Florida lawmakers are backing down.

A billionaire healthcare magnate alleges a secret deal was brokered to bury hopes for e-Verify and advance a bill banning so-called ‘sanctuary cities’.
Published March 25, 2019

Legislators have cut a secret deal, trading a set of bills that would require Florida businesses to check the immigration status of new hires via “e-Verify,” for bills to ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” which have been fast-tracked through committee stops.

The agriculture industry and a state senator from each party agreed behind the scenes last week to block one proposal and advance the other, said Mike Fernandez, a billionaire healthcare magnate and prominent political booster in Miami with firsthand knowledge of the deal. He declined to disclose the identity of the lawmakers.

Under the agreement, Fernandez said, leaders agreed to fast-track the anti-sanctuary city bills — including Senate Bill 168 — through committee stops while e-Verify proposals would languish without a single hearing.

“The ‘secret deal’ to pass SB 168 in exchange for killing e-Verify proposals is not a worthy exchange,” Fernandez wrote in an email Friday. “Accepting such a deal is economically harmful, morally wrong, threatens safety of all Floridians and politically stupid for Florida Republican party. Such a deal says that it’s not okay to target immigrants at the workplace, but it is okay to target them while driving to work or church and dropping their children at school.”

Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners, a private Coral Gables investment firm, is also the co-chair of the American Business Immigration Coalition. The coalition advocates for providing opportunities for immigrants and foreign students to enter the U.S. workforce legally and establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

“Driving Latinos and immigrants out of our community, economy and Republican Party, no matter where the targeting is occurring, has the same outcome: loss of workers, tax revenue, voters, while threatening the safety of all Floridians when immigrants do not trust the police,” he wrote.

One state agency official, one Tallahassee lobbyist and one state senator confirmed they heard secondhand that the deal was made.

The Senate version of the e-Verify bill, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, had been referred to the Judiciary Committee. Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs that committee, said “I don’t think we’ll be hearing that in the Judiciary Committee at this time.”

“I think that we have limited ourselves to in respect to immigration in [Senate Bill 168], which is the bill that Sen. Joe Gruters has related to sanctuary policies,” he added, declining to give any specifics.

The proposals have similarly stalled in the House. Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican who chairs the Workforce Development and Tourism Subcommittee that is the first stop for the House’s e-Verify bill, also declined to comment on why the bill has not yet been heard. That bill is being sponsored by Rep. Thad Altman, an Indialantic Republican.

All the while, the bills concerning “sanctuary cities” are moving quickly through the Legislature. The Senate bill has passed along party lines through its first two committee stops, and is headed to the Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. The House bill was heard in its first committee, and one of its three committee stops was canceled Friday afternoon, dramatically speeding up the process in a way one veteran lobbyist said was “a rare move.”

E-Verify has had a long, contentious history before the Florida Legislature. During his 2010 campaign, former Gov. Rick Scott called for all businesses in Florida to use e-Verify. He also signed an executive order shortly after taking office in 2011 that required state agencies under his direction to verify the employment eligibility of all new employees by using e-Verify.

An immigration crackdown bill that was amended to require e-Verify later failed on the Senate floor that year. At the time, then-Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who was the deciding vote against the proposal, called e-Verify and other immigration verification tools “fundamentally flawed.” Alexander is a farmer and citrus grower who uses the system.

Historically, the state’s largest business groups have opposed using e-Verify, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis supports both sanctuary cities and e-Verify but has said e-Verify is less crucial, citing the low unemployment rate.

He said e-Verify may not have as much salience as it would if jobs were scarcer. He added that he still wants to see e-Verify be addressed during his term.

“I’d like to do it this session but if we don’t … it’s not any community winning out over me,” he said last week. “We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire this session, and we want to deliver on the things that we can. This will be one that I’m not gonna quit on.”

Just last year, DeSantis accused former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, his primary opponent in the gubernatorial campaign, with working with agriculture interest groups to dampen efforts to enact e-Verify laws, the News Service of Florida reported.

Putman’s replacement, new Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, said she supports efforts for “comprehensive reform” to fix the American immigration system. She declined to respond to questions about e-Verify.

Top leaders denied there was a meeting and a secret agreement.

Senate President Bill Galvano said he thinks addressing immigration should be delegated to the federal government but that “partisan gridlock” forces states to step in. Through a spokesperson, the Bradenton Republican denied knowing about the arrangement.

“The President has repeatedly said that he does not believe in micromanaging the committee process,” Katie Betta, a spokeswoman, said. “As such, specific decisions regarding the meeting agendas are made by the committee chairs, in coordination with the bill sponsors.”

House spokesman Fred Piccolo said that the Speaker’s office had not been made aware of any such arrangement: “Each bill is moving in the House at a pace commensurate with its level of support.”

House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes has not taken a public position on this session’s e-Verify bills but did say he supports the sanctuary city bill while taking questions from reporters on March 13.

“I think it’s important. It’s amazing that we have to state that laws — that one should abide by laws, and that elected officials and authorities and municipalities would have to cooperate with law,” he said. “But if it needs to be said then I don’t have a problem saying it.”

Towson Fraser, a lobbyist for the American Business Immigration Coalition, said the deal is “politically shortsighted.”

“It appeases voters from the last election and eliminates a huge demographic that Republicans will need in the future to maintain their majority,” he said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.