Lawmakers advance E-Verify bills, but critics warn they could hurt FL’s economy and workers’ livelihoods

Florida Immigrant Coalition photo

Florida lawmakers are close to delivering on a major political promise of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants the state to take a harder line on immigration.

As the 2020 session nears its March 13 scheduled adjournment, both the House and Senate are ready for floor votes on bills that would require government agencies and major Florida employers to use the federal E-Verify system to determine the eligibility of their workers.

“Assuring a legal workforce through E-Verify will be good for the rule of law, protect taxpayers, and place an upward pressure on the wages of Floridians who work in blue collar jobs,” DeSantis told lawmakers in his opening-day speech for the 2020 session.

The development comes one year after the GOP-led Legislature obliged the Republican governor by imposing sanctions on local government officials who refuse to cooperate in federal immigration law enforcement.

Passage of last year’s so-called “sanctuary city” law and this year’s E-Verify bill could be good politically for DeSantis, a close ally of President Trump. The Republican president, who faces re-election this year, has made hardline immigration policies the centerpiece of his administration.

But opponents of the E-Verify bill warn it could have dire economic consequences in the nation’s third-largest state, where thousands of undocumented workers are critical to key industries including hotels, restaurants, construction, and agriculture.

One report estimates Florida could lose more than 250,000 workers if a stringent E-Verify system were put into place.

“We do not expect the number of undocumented immigrants in Florida to return to the highs of 15 to 20 years ago, given both the falling birth rates in countries from which they come to the U.S. and heightened immigration enforcement efforts,” argues a February report from FWD.us, an immigration-reform advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and other technology leaders.

“At a time of tight labor markets and record low unemployment, diminishing the size of the available labor pool will predictably result in negative and costly repercussions for businesses, their customers, and Floridians generally,” the report said.

FWD.us estimated there are approximately 700,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida, with about 440,000 either working or looking for jobs.

If an E-Verify system were mandated for all Florida businesses, it would result in the loss of some 253,000 jobs, led by 79,000 jobs in hotel and food-service businesses and 54,500 construction jobs, the report estimates.

Nataly Chalco Lopez, a student at Florida State University, testified before House and Senate committees this week, describing how a stringent E-Verify system would harm her parents, who are undocumented workers.

“This is really personal for me and my family,” said Lopez, who has been able to remain in Florida and attend school legally because she qualifies under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.

“We’re Floridians,” she said. “We work here. We pay our taxes here. We go to school here and we’re just working towards the American dream.”

But lawmakers also heard from Kiyan Michael, a Jacksonville woman whose 21-year-old son was killed in a traffic accident involving an undocumented worker in 2007.

“He was lured here, the illegal who killed him, by a job. He was working illegally,” Michael said.

She said the undocumented worker had been deported twice but returned to Florida. “My son’s life was worth somebody doing a double-check, a triple-check [of the worker’s eligibility status],” Michael said.

Under the Senate bill (SB 664), Florida businesses employing 50 or more workers would have to use E-Verify or a similar system to determine the eligibility of their workers. E-Verify is an electronic portal operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that checks job application information against data on store with the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies.

Smaller businesses could verify the status of their workers by using documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, or Social Security cards, although they would be subject to periodic audits by the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

The House bill (HB 1265) would let Florida employers use either the E-Verify system or the verification method using passports and other documents.

Both the House and Senate bills would require all governments to use E-Verify when hiring workers or hiring contractors to do government work.

Opponents have questioned the accuracy of the E-Verify system.

“E-Verify is not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade Democrat who opposes the legislation.

Legislative analysts say the last independent report on the E-Verify system showed a 94 percent accuracy rate in 2012, although that was based on data from 2009 or earlier.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Hillsborough County Republican who is managing the Senate bill, said he believes the system has become very accurate.

“My personal opinion, having looked at all this, is the only reason you wouldn’t use E-Verify is because you know you’re hiring people that aren’t authorized to work in the state of Florida and you know that system’s going to catch it,” he said.

Lee was also instrumental in eliminating an exemption for agriculture workers, saying he would recommend DeSantis veto the bill if that remained.

He said the latest version of the Senate bill — which cleared the Senate Rules Committee in a 10-7 vote on Monday — is closer to the employment verification process that the governor has requested.

“I think that those [revised] provisions were probably necessary for the governor to be able to feel like we don’t have this exit ramp from E-Verify that you could drive a truck through,” Lee said.

Democrats have opposed both the House and Senate bills, arguing that immigration reform should be done at the federal level and provide a legal pathway for the undocumented workers who are already in Florida and other states.

“I would argue that we need an economic system that answers to working people, an immigration system that enables newcomers to put down roots and become wholly enfranchised members of our communities,” said Rep. Jennifer Webb, a Pinellas County Democrat who voted against the bill in the House State Affairs Committee on Monday.

But lawmakers who support the bills say the state needs to act in the absence of any federal effort to overhaul the immigration system.

“We’re trying to fill in for and trying to solve the problems that were created by a federal government that permitted individuals who were under deportation orders to still be here,” said Sen. David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican who supports the legislation.