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E-Verify bill clears first Florida Senate hurdle (but there’s a long way to go)

The bill, which was briefly debated at the tail end of a three-hour committee meeting, passed 4-2 along party lines.

TALLAHASSEE — The sponsor of a controversial bill that would require Florida businesses to check the immigration status of new hires via “E-Verify” made two things clear Tuesday.

First, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the mandate. Second, the mandate is still very much “a work in progress.”

“This is a centerpiece of the governor’s legislative agenda this session,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa said in his opening statement. “And we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to not make the situation any worse than it already is.”

The bill, which was briefly debated at the tail end of a three-hour committee meeting, passed 4-2 along party lines. The truncated debate set up what is likely to be a drawn-out fight through the second half of the legislative session, characterized by party-line votes and opposition from some of the most powerful lobbies in Tallahassee.

The proposal is the strictest of its kind filed this year, as it includes both public and private employers in the mandate, crossing both the business and agriculture lobby. Two other bills, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota and Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, exempt private employers, who serve as some of the state’s biggest political campaign donors.

Despite the strong business lobby against it, DeSantis has vowed to pass an E-Verify bill, even directly asking the Legislature to do so, saying it would remove an incentive for people to come to Florida illegally. Last month the Republican Party of Florida, where Gruters doubles as chairman, recently voted to back the governor’s stance.

The bill would rescind licenses of businesses who don’t comply and have a state agency report unauthorized workers to immigration authorities.

Important amendments

The bill passed with amendments by committee chair Sen. David Simmons, which carve out casual laborers, independent contractors and the agriculture industry, a large political donor and powerful lobby in Florida.

“If someone comes to your house, it’s exceedingly difficult ... it’s literally impossible for you to do an E-Verify on that person,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said. “This is common sense.”

It did not include a slew of amendments put forward by Miami Sen. José Javier Rodríguez that would carve out health care providers, the restaurant and lodging industries, construction companies, religious institutions, and schools. The amendments all failed.

Business and agriculture groups supported the amended version of the bill Tuesday, thanking Simmons for helping small- and medium-sized businesses.

Chris Emmanuel, of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the amendments provide “significant improvements” to Lee’s original bill.

Adam Basford, of the Florida Farm Bureau, said the group supports the amendment and that the federal government should be addressing immigration reform, not the state.

E-Verify has had a contentious history before the Florida Legislature, testing Republican unity. 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.

E-Verify did come up last year but was stalled after legislators cut a secret deal, trading E-Verify bills for proposals to ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” which were fast-tracked through committee stops and passed after heated floor debate.

The agriculture industry and a state senator from each party agreed behind the scenes to block one proposal and advance the other, according to Mike Fernandez, a billionaire healthcare magnate and prominent political booster in Miami who had firsthand knowledge of the deal.

Fernandez and others in the business community oppose the bill because of its effect on businesses that hire undocumented workers and the economy, to which undocumented people who live and work in Florida contribute. They say permanent immigration reform on a federal level is the only way to address undocumented workers in states like Florida.

Issues at the federal level

Lee told reporters after the vote that upholding federal immigration law, especially regarding employment, is “something that Congress has proven they cannot enforce.”

“This state does not want to turn a blind eye that we, too, as a state, have a certain patriotic obligation to try and make our best effort to make sure our employers are complying,” Lee said.

He added that DeSantis also wants to make good on a campaign promise, and that the bill is “on a glide path” to an eventual floor vote.

“No one disputes the fact that we have a growing population of undocumented workers in this country, not authorized to work in the United States of America,” he said. “I need something I can bring to the floor that I can get 21 votes on.”

According to federal government records, more than 54,000 employers in Florida are currently enrolled in the E-Verify database. A recent study from reported that, if passed, E-Verify could cost Florida 253,500 jobs, a loss of $10.7 billion in earnings and $1.25 billion in state and local revenue.

Hospitality and construction businesses will be most impacted, the study showed, seeing 79,000 positions lost in lodging and food service and 54,500 jobs lost in construction.

According to the study, losses would be felt most acutely in 16 counties in South Florida, where earnings would diminish by $6.2 billion, 145,862 jobs would be lost, and local and state tax revenues would fall by $756 million.

Bob Dickinson, former Carnival Cruise Lines CEO, is also a board member on the American Business Immigration Coalition, a group of business leaders which is active in seven states.

Dickinson, who is based in Miami, slammed the proposal as anti-business and spoke of the heavy impact his industry would face.

Just 11% of Carnival employees are U.S.-born, he noted. Like other hospitality industry jobs across the state, U.S. citizens don’t want most of the jobs.

The unemployment rate is already low, he said, and if undocumented people can’t be employed, both companies and the state economy will suffer greatly.

“This is a quarter of a million people, gone from the economy. These are gainfully employed people, not members of the MS-13,” he said. “They have families, they pay taxes and they have an enormous retail impact. They buy food and gasoline and automobiles. The ripple effect is enormous.”

He said the legislation is nothing more than Republican pandering. DeSantis is doing well in the polls, and, “Democrats have managed to shoot themselves in both feet and both hands.”

“None of this red meat is necessary,” he said. “He has the base. Shame on them for not putting the citizens of Florida first.”

Fernandez, who vehemently opposes the E-Verify proposal this year, said these pushes represent a new Republican Party.

“The low-tax, high-employment, pro-business party of yesterday is totally disappeared,” he said. “They are now targeting the wrong group … the job creators.”

Anna Morzy, an employment immigration attorney with Greenberg Traurig, said mandatory E-Verify won’t actually help with illegal immigration, but instead drain resources for small- and medium-sized businesses and push undocumented workers to work for cash or seek false work permits.

“The real solution is for Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform that will allow for temporary work visas that meet the economic needs of industries such as agriculture and hospitality,” she said.

In a statement, state Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo reduced the E-Verify bill to a game of “political points.”

“Republicans are demonstrating that their allegiance to Trump and DeSantis is more important than doing the right thing for Florida’s business owners and workers,” she said.

When asked if the bill will force lawmakers to decide between support from conservative voters and donations from big corporations, Lee said he hopes lawmakers don’t see it that way.

“We have an obligation to do what we can to try and make sure our employers are following the laws. Not for ourselves or donations or votes but for the people back home,” he said. “When it comes to a buck, [legislators] just turn the other cheek and decide that money is more important than the rule of law. And that just doesn’t fly with me.”

Sen. President Bill Galvano opposes the bill, saying it would create a burden for employers in Florida’s vital agriculture, tourism and construction sectors. Similar measures have failed in the past.

In 2017 a proposal to require E-Verify for employers came before the Constitutional Revision Commission. At the time, Sen. Kelli Stargel’s husband, former state Rep. John Stargel, voted against it. So did Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and former Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was recently appointed to the Trump administration’s law enforcement panel.