FILE - Tom Lee

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa

Nothing cracks Florida’s thick red line like proposals requiring all state employers implement the federal E-Verify employment system to ensure their workers are eligible to work in the U.S.

On one hand, adopting E-Verify is among priorities spearheaded by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Republican chairman Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, in tandem with President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented aliens.

On the other, it is vigorously opposed by Republican-aligned interests, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA), tourism, industry and retail interests.

In fact, the Immigration Partnership & Coalition Fund, formed in 2017, announced in September it had assembled a coalition of 60 businesses to oppose any prospective 2020 E-Verify bills.

But two were filed: Senate Bill 664, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, and SB 1822, filed by Gruters. The bills vary only in reporting requirements and in penalties for noncompliance.

Until Tuesday, one day before the 60-day session’s midpoint, neither had been heard in committee. After Tuesday, it’s certain the measures won’t be adopted as proposed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced Lee’s SB 664 after it was amended to exempt the agriculture-related employers from the E-Verify mandate.

The amendment, proposed by committee chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, convinced the panel’s Republicans to approve the measure in a 4-2 vote.

The two dissenting Democrats voted "no" on the proposal after Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, submitted six failed amendments seeking to also exempt restaurant and hotel employers and requiring employers to use E-Verify materials in English and Spanish.

Simmons’ amendment excludes farmers and agricultural employers, including those who recruit and transport seasonal migrant workers, and exempts “public contractors” and “subcontractors” with fewer than 10 employees and contracts less than $65,000.

“We do not want to put a burden on small businesses with something that is an obligation with the federal government,” Simmons said, noting while undocumented workers are subject to relatively minor civil penalties, employers face harsh penalties and criminal punishment.

FFVA representative Gary Hunter said the amendment would help the state’s growers, who employ 100,000 workers.

“We will continue to work with you to get language that protects legal workers in Florida,” he said.

The measure was debated shortly after – a national group that advocates for prison reform and amnesty for undocumented immigrants – released a study that projected if E-Verify were mandated, Florida could lose 253,500 jobs, $10.7 billion in earnings and $1.25 billion in state and local tax revenue.

E-Verify, an electronic federal database created in 1996 and maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Department of Homeland Security, is used by more than 700,000 employers and 2.4 million hiring sites nationwide, according to the SSA.

The system is required to varying degrees in 20 states, with South Carolina, Arizona and Mississippi adopting mandatory E-Verify bills in the past two years.

Mandating E-Verify for all employers has been a hotly contested issue in Florida for a decade. Similar E-Verify bills have failed two of the past three legislative sessions.

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 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.

DeSantis’ support for E-Verify in the context of immigration reform is among factors cited as reasons for his upset win over Putnam.