Even before Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, filed a bill that would require all state employers to use the federal E-Verify system to validate workers’ immigration status – a priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis – the same Republican-aligned forces that stymied similar legislation two of the last three sessions were campaigning against it.
Lee, a former Senate president, introduced Senate Bill 664 last week, but a coalition of more than 60 business leaders and former elected officials, the Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund Coalition (IMPAC), had been lobbying against it since September.
E-Verify “would be a disaster for Florida’s economy. With record low unemployment and staggering worker shortages in the hospitality and agriculture sectors, imposing mandatory E-Verify would only further hold back the growth of our economy,” the IMPAC Fund wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Senate President Bill Galvano, House Speaker Jose Oliva and DeSantis.
According to the IMPAC Fund, adopting E-Verify could jeopardize the jobs of 1.1 million U.S. citizens nationwide and cost Florida employers $4.7 billion to replace “lawfully present workers that receive false disqualification.”
IMPAC joins the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, tourism, industry and retail interests – significant GOP contributors – in opposing E-Verify.
But E-Verify also has deep support within the state’s Republican contingent, from the governor on down. Lawmakers will be in session during a campaign year with President Donald Trump leading a GOP ticket championing restrictive immigration policies popular with party voters.
Lee’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the state GOP party chairman who filed a similar proposal in 2017. Gruters and Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune, successfully carried companion bills to ban sanctuary cities – also a DeSantis priority – during the 2019 session. Byrd is expected to file a House companion to SB 664.
E-Verify is an electronic federal database created in 1996 and maintained by the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security to check workers’ identities to confirm they can legally work.
The immigration status check is required to varying degrees in 20 states, with South Carolina, Arizona and Mississippi adopting mandatory E-Verify bills in the last two years.
E-Verify is used by more than 700,000 employers and 2.4 million hiring sites nationwide, according to the Social Security Administration.
Mandating E-Verify for all employers has been a hotly contested issue in Florida for a decade.
As part of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Rick Scott called for all businesses to use E-Verify. In response to criticism by the business and agricultural groups, Scott limited the E-Verify requirement in a 2011 only to state agencies.
During the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary campaign between Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and then-Congressman Ron DeSantis, E-Verify surfaced as a bitterly divisive topic.
DeSantis pledged to sign a mandatory E-Verify bill if one was adopted and accused Putnam of collaborating with agriculture interests to skirt immigration laws and undermine efforts to adopt the pre-employment immigration status check.
DeSantis’ support for E-Verify in the context of immigration reform is among factors cited as reasons for his upset win over Putnam.
In April 2018, after passing two preliminary votes, the Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) shot down a proposed ballot measure asking voters to require E-Verify for all employers in a 24-12 tally.
During the 2019 session, companion Senate-House E-Verify bills failed to gain traction.
SB 164 filed by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and HB 89, filed by Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indiatlantic, would have required all private employers and state contractors to enroll in the system. The bills never got hearings before any of committees they were referred to.
After the 2019 session, DeSantis vowed to continue to press for E-Verify and cited discord among GOP legislators as the reason it was not adopted.
The governor wants an E-Verify law that will require all private employers to use E-Verify for new hires, but not for workers already on the payroll.
Lee’s SB 664 would require all employers to start using E-Verify by Jan. 1, 2021. In line with DeSantis’ request, it does not require immigration checks of workers hired before the E-Verify start date.
The proposed law would require employers to turn over records proving employees are citizens or authorized to work in the U.S. Businesses that don’t meet the rollout date would risk losing their licenses.
Under the bill, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) would also alert the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) of identities of any unauthorized aliens employed by the business.