DeSantis may not get all his immigration priorities despite sweeping bill

A bill would require more employers to use E-Verify and would require hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status.
Vacationers walk on the beach near a grounded migrant boat named "La Esperanza," Spanish for "Hope," on Coco Plum Beach in Marathon, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Vacationers walk on the beach near a grounded migrant boat named "La Esperanza," Spanish for "Hope," on Coco Plum Beach in Marathon, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published April 25

TALLAHASSEE — After working an overnight shift at a Miami public hospital, Kevin Cho Tipton flew to Tallahassee on Monday to warn state lawmakers about an immigration bill that would require most Florida hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status.

The question on the admission form would be followed by a statement indicating the patient’s response would not impact their care or result in them being reported to immigration authorities. Tipton, a nurse practitioner, worries migrants won’t believe it.

“As someone who is deeply involved in the bedside care of people, they will worry what this question actually means,” he told the House Commerce Committee. “I realize that the intent of this bill is not to force people to be afraid of receiving care, but I guarantee you this will cause people to be fearful.”

As a result, people will delay seeking needed medical care, he said.

The data would be reported to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which would report that information to the governor’s office and the Legislature, no other organizations, said bill sponsor Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole.

The provision is one of many measures included in a sweeping immigration bill that is a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ conservative legislative platform. Other parts of the bill seek to crack down on migrant labor, end locally funded community ID programs for residents who are in the country illegally and toughen penalties against those who transport migrants who enter the country illegally into the state.

The immigration package was slow to gain traction during the legislative session, in part because of the impacts it would have on the business community, but Republican legislative leaders in both the House and Senate began advancing the measure this week.

Much of what DeSantis asked the Legislature to approve is included, but it falls short of what the Republican governor has promised voters.

DeSantis has vowed to require all Florida employers to use a federal electronic system, known as E-Verify, to check the immigration status of all workers. It would expand a state law that currently requires government employers and contractors to use the system, a mandate DeSantis championed during his first year in office but has since called “inadequate.”

But Republican lawmakers this year are only considering a requirement for private businesses with more than 25 employees — while giving employers with fewer employees the option to use an I-9 form, which federal law already requires.

The bill also exempts those who hire independent contractors or pay someone — such as a maid or a gardener — to do work at a private residence.

Business groups raise concerns

The new hiring protocols would go into effect July 1, and violations would carry stiff penalties, including fines of up to $1,000 a day, the possibility of a business losing its operating license or having to pay back economic incentives to the state. These provisions have raised concerns among business owners, including some Republican lawmakers, and one of the state’s most influential business groups.

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“The level of penalties sometimes could be pretty excessive here,” said Adam Basford with Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state’s largest business lobbying groups. He said “mistakes” can happen and noted that there have been questions about how reliable E-Verify can be.

Basford noted that the bill sponsors have acknowledged the system’s unreliability by including a “workaround” in the bill. Employers would be allowed to use the I-9 form if they cannot access the system to verify a new employee’s eligibility. The employer would be required to show the lack of access to the system.

E-Verify errors occur due to imperfect data on the federal database. In Florida, there has been at least one instance in which a state contractor was found to have hired several workers living in the country illegally who the company said were “processed and authorized for employment through the E-Verify system.”

The DeSantis administration continues to pay millions of dollars to the state contractor, Archer Western-De Moya Joint Venture, even after authorities found it had hired unauthorized workers, including two men who were charged in connection with the death of a Pinellas County deputy at a construction site.

Some groups have challenged requirements to use E-Verify due to errors, which they argued could even cost legal workers their jobs.

The chief of domestic security at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would be tasked with ensuring compliance with the E-Verify requirements, coordinating random audits of business records and notifying the Department of Economic Opportunity of violations.

Other immigration-related proposals

The House Commerce Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. The language approved is expected to be a compromise between the House and Senate.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo told reporters last week that the Senate’s version of the bill is expected to undergo several changes to “make the bill better.” The Senate bill, as currently written, creates stiff penalties for businesses that hire immigrants who are in the country illegally, but makes E-Verify optional for private employers.

A hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled for Tuesday, but no amendments had been filed as of 7 p.m. Monday.

The version of the bill that was approved no longer includes language that would have also made it a third-degree felony for knowingly transporting, concealing or harboring an immigrant without legal status.

The bill, however, would make it a third-degree felony to knowingly transport someone who is illegally in the country into Florida. This could apply to church groups that are knowingly transporting migrants into the state, said House Commerce Committee Chairman Bob Rommel, R-Naples.

Community IDs and tuition breaks

Community ID programs, like the ones in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, would be impacted by the bill. The programs create county-approved identification cards for people who don’t have driver’s licenses or state IDs.

The measure would prohibit local governments from funding those programs.

DeSantis has also said he wants the Legislature to roll back an in-state tuition break at state colleges and universities granted to students back in 2014 who were brought to the country illegally. The House and Senate have yet to back that proposal, and so far it has received a lukewarm response from Republican legislative leaders.

The tuition break was pushed by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez in 2014 when she was in the House, and it was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

DeSantis has said the state should not be subsidizing the education of “non-U.S. citizens.”

A 2014 law that allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to be admitted to practice law in Florida would be repealed under the House bill.

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