FL Legislature passes weakened E-Verify bill; immigration groups are critical

Florida Immigrant Coalition photo

Lawmakers have sent a scaled-back E-Verify bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis that will give Florida businesses the option of using the federal system to verify the immigration status of their workers.

In his 2018 campaign, the Republican governor called for legislation requiring all Florida businesses to the use the E-Verify system. 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.

But the bill (SB 664) falls short of DeSantis’ proposal, giving private businesses the option of using E-Verify or confirming an employee’s status through the “I-9 Form” process, which involves documents such as passports or driver’s licenses.

The bill requires all public agencies, including state and local governments, to use E-Verify to confirm the employment status of workers, including those working for government contractors.

The legislation passed the Florida Senate in a 23-17 vote Thursday night. The House voted 73-45 for it on Wednesday. Both votes were along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

Immigration groups criticized the legislation.

“As our state faces its most challenging public health and economic crisis brought on by Covid-19, GOP lawmakers have instead focused their attention on passing anti-immigrant E-Verify legislation,” the Florida Immigration Coalition tweeted Thursday night.

FWD.us, an immigration-reform advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and other technology leaders, 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 group estimated.

But under an optional system, the impact will be reduced. The bill also does not affect any workers, even if they are undocumented, if they are currently employed.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who opposed the bill, called it “fake news” in a tweet.

“No immigrant will be cracked down on,” he said. “Nearly every business is exempt like the (Florida Chamber of Commerce) wants it. But (the Florida GOP) will claim a sham victory for their anti-immigration agenda. I guess I should be grateful for this weak proposal.”

In an interview with the Florida Phoenix, Sen. Tom Lee, the Hillsborough County Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, defended its impact.

“I suspect when we line it up against the 22 other states that have passed E-Verify (laws), this will be, if not the strongest, close to the strongest E-verify bill in the United States of America,” Lee said.

“We don’t exempt any employers. We do allow the I-9 system to be used as a parallel system, but we require these records be retained, and then we have an enforcement mechanism and penalties that are pretty stiff,” he said.

Lee acknowledged the bill exempts current workers.

“But the fact that the employers know that we now have a system in the state of Florida where law enforcement can check your records to see that you’re complying with our requirements under state law to verify the authenticity of employees to work in the United States, I think it’s going to create a lot more compliance,” he said.

Lee had pushed for a stronger bill requiring all Florida businesses with more than 50 workers to use E-Verify. The bill also allowed the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to periodically audit companies using the I-9 document verification process.

But House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican, objected to the DEO audit provision, calling it “un-American.” His opposition led to the scaled-back legislation.

Here is a prior Florida Phoenix story on the legislation.