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Florida Senate passes E-Verify bill, sends to House for approval

Sen. George Gainer was the only Republican to vote with Democrats against the bill. Gainer, of Panama City, represents many rural communities in Panhandle counties.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate passed a “compromise” version of a bill Monday that requires employers to do federal immigration background checks on new hires using either E-Verify or an I-9 system. The bill includes a provision that allows the state to randomly audit businesses who opt out of using the federal system.

The revised bill, which is much closer to the House’s plan, passed 22-18.

Sen. George Gainer was the only Republican to vote with Democrats against the bill. Gainer, of Panama City, represents many rural communities in Panhandle counties.

SB 664, dubbed the “E-Verify” bill, has been one of the most politically contentious issues this legislative session, which comes amid a 2020 election cycle.

Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa said his bill has “been dialed back” quite a bit, and that it was a compromise with the House’s version.

“What we’re asking for is for employers to simply follow ... and honor federal law,” he said. “But I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for Congress to act.”

The bill requires that businesses either use E-Verify, a federal program that checks the immigration status of workers, or keep a three-year record of documents used by applicants when filling out a form “I-9,” a federal check on a person’s legal eligibility to work in the U.S.

The mandate allows the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to randomly audit any private business with regard to its hiring decisions. The bill allows any state agency to request and review employment files of any private employer.

The bill would also give DEO $2.6 million in funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year to hire more workers to enforce the mandate.

While the new version of the bill looks much closer to the House’s version, “some concerns remain,” on the House side, Speaker José Oliva told reporters Saturday.

He said that one part in particular gives him pause, which is a mandate that empowers DEO to suspend the licenses of businesses that don’t use employment verification programs.

This mandate is not built into the House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach.

He also is uneasy with the random audits the Senate bill allows.

“We are giving agencies the random ability to show up and do audits,” Oliva said. “There’s something about that doesn’t say ‘America.’ ”

The House is expected to take it up this week. If the House adopts the Senate version and passes it, the bill has a good chance of making it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. If the House rejects the language and “it doesn’t come right back,” it may run out of time, Lee said.

Lee said the enforcement mechanism is important to ensure that businesses are following federal law. It’s being characterized negatively by “those looking for impurities in the bill,” he said.

“The truth is these businesses have the privilege of operating in the greatest economy in the history of civilization,” he said. “If you ask them to help a little bit to enforce federal law, is that really a lot to ask?”

A DeSantis priority

DeSantis, who promised to pass E-Verify legislation in his 2018 campaign for governor, is behind the push for a mandate.

He pressured the Republican-dominated Legislature to send him a bill that would require all public and private employers to register with and use E-Verify, a program that is widely supported by GOP base voters.

“This is a centerpiece of the governor’s legislative agenda this session,” Lee said while presenting his bill last month. “And we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to not make the situation any worse than it already is.”

Throughout the winding path his bill has taken, Lee said he has had the “full-throated support” of the governor.

While Lee has struggled with changes to his bill, onto which lawmakers have proposed almost 30 amendments, he told the Herald/Times Monday that the bill has “been dialed back” quite a bit, and that he hopes DeSantis will still sign the bill if it passes the House.

“At some point the governor has to decide if there’s enough left in the bill to satisfy him,” he said.

The opposition

Many business groups and immigrants rights advocates have come out against the proposal, saying it would take a major hit to Florida’s top industries that rely heavily on undocumented laborers, like tourism and agriculture. They say the bill goes far beyond an E-Verify mandate, and gives state agencies too much power to get employment information about immigrant worker in Florida.

The American Business Immigrant Coalition (ABIC) — whose board is made up of leaders like former Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Bob Dickinson and Miami healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez — has come out strongly against the Senate’s version of the proposal.

“It makes DEO into an ICE snitch hotline,” said Rebecca Shi, ABIC executive director.. “The House version does not have an ICE snitch portal while requiring all employers to comply with E-Verify or existing federal I-9 procedures to verify the legal status of their workforce.”

Kara Gross, of the ACLU, agreed that the legislation is “overly broad” and that she is concerned about the power given to state agencies like DEO.

“If signed into law, it would not only turn state agencies and private businesses into a policing arm of the federal government, it would empower the Department of Economic Opportunity to randomly audit any private business,” she wrote in an email. “Regardless of your position on immigration reform, this is a dangerous precedent.”

What the base wants

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as the state’s Republican party chair, said while the bill isn’t perfect, “it’s a great start.”

“The bill we passed today is a big win for the base,” he said. “I would say it was quite a journey to even get to this point.”

Gruters, who led a charge to get county parties to endorse the effort months ago, said the proposal addresses immigration issues Congress has failed to act on, and enforces federal employment law.

The bill works on “turning off the spigot” of access to jobs, which brings many immigrants to America in the first place, Gruters said. He added that the Legislature will continue dealing with immigration issues until Congress acts.

“Washington, D.C., has left us to pick up their pieces,” he said. “I don’t blame people looking for a better life. But at the same time, that’s the incentive we give people to stay.”

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