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Florida Senate to oppose DeSantis’ push for statewide citizenship check for businesses

For years, attempts to impose the mandate requiring businesses to verify the citizenship of their employees has gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, (left) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, during happier times earlier this year. They don't agree on E-Verify. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, (left) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, during happier times earlier this year. They don't agree on E-Verify. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Dec. 16, 2019
Updated Dec. 16, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants all Florida businesses to use a system to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting jobs in the state, but a powerful Republican leader is pushing back against the proposal.

Senate President Bill Galvano said last week he does not support a measure that would force Florida’s private employers to use the federal government’s E-Verify system, which checks to see if new hires are authorized to work in the U.S.

“It is something that the Florida Senate — or at least this administration — does not endorse,” Galvano told The News Service of Florida during an interview Thursday.

For years, attempts to impose the mandate have gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature. The proposals have faced fierce pushback from Florida’s agriculture, tourism and construction industries, including major GOP donors.

But DeSantis has made the controversial proposal one of his top priorities for next year’s legislative session, which starts Jan. 14.

The governor is championing the measure at a time when President Donald Trump — a close ally of DeSantis — will be at the top of the 2020 ticket in Florida and throughout the nation.

Trump’s hard-line immigration policies have been a cornerstone of his presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020. DeSantis made immigration one of his top issues as a gubernatorial candidate last year.

Heading into the upcoming session, Galvano’s stance as the Senate president will carry significant weight. His opposition could hamper the governor’s quest for a statewide E-Verify policy.

But, although Galvano said he opposes an across-the-board E-Verify requirement, he left the door open for a slimmed down immigration proposal.

“Let me put it this way,” Galvano said. “I don’t support having the requirement that everyone (use) E-Verify. It’s putting an additional additional responsibility on non-government officials.”

Galvano’s comments come less than a year after the Florida Senate approved a ban on so-called sanctuary cities — another immigration priority of the governor.

When the Senate cracked down on sanctuary cities, under Galvano’s leadership, the chamber reversed course on the politically charged issue it had blocked for the past three years.

While opponents decried the sanctuary city ban as an anti-immigrant proposal, critics of E-Verify maintain the measure would have a negative economic impact on many of the state’s businesses.

Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, declined to comment on whether he intends to support or oppose an E-Verify bill during the upcoming session.

However, state Rep. Cord Byrd said a House bill addressing E-Verify is currently in the works.

“I have been talking to members and listening to their concerns and trying to address some of those, so I don’t think the bill would look exactly like the one that was filed last session,” Byrd told the News Service on Thursday.

A House proposal floated by Rep. Thad Altman earlier this year would have required all private employers and contractors to enroll in the federal system. The bill was never heard by a House committee.

“I think you will see some new wrinkles and some differences when it comes out,” Byrd said about his bill.

E-Verify has also faced challenges in the Senate in the past.

Sen. Aaron Bean earlier this year sponsored an E-Verify bill, which never received a committee vetting.

For the upcoming session, Republican Sens. Tom Lee and Joe Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, are championing a measure (SB 664) that would apply to all Florida employers and contractors.

Lee, R-Thonotosassa, told the News Service in October he is open-minded about making changes to his bill. But “it can’t be some deal we cut to a special industry because they have a special status in the Legislature,” he said.

During an appearance in The Villages last month, DeSantis vowed to make E-Verify a legislative priority.

Accompanied by Gruters and Byrd at the event, DeSantis said the federal system is needed to curtail violence and crime by undocumented immigrants.

“The law is the law and you either comply with it or you don’t,” the governor said at the event late last month.

Byrd echoed those sentiments during an interview with the News Service last week.

The Neptune Beach Republican said two critical factors — jobs and elections — demand passage of the E-Verify proposal.

“Immigration is one of the top issues with the electorate and we are limited at the state level with what we can do,” Byrd said, adding that E-Verify is one of the items under the state Legislature’s control.

Byrd argued that the system, if approved, would lead to higher wages because employers would no longer be able to hire undocumented workers for less money.

“Illegal labor impacts the wages of everyone and it drives wages down,” Byrd said. “As we talk about trying to increase wages in so many areas, this is one way we can impact that.”

But opponents of the proposal argue E-Verify would hurt the state economy because, among other things, businesses would struggle to find workers in a state where unemployment is low.

Tony DiMare, whose family business DiMare Farms grows tomatoes in Florida, told the News Service the federal system has the potential of bringing the “state’s economy to its knees.”

DiMare, who said he told the governor about his concerns, called it “disheartening” to learn that DeSantis prioritized the proposal, even after their talks.

“We have to hope that we can lobby against it,” DiMare said.

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