(NSF) – A Senate committee on Tuesday approved a watered-down proposal aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from getting jobs in the state, an issue that has long divided Florida Republicans and is sowing discord among prominent business leaders.
Along party lines, the Senate Judiciary Committee backed the bill (SB 664), which would require employers to do immigration checks on all new hires through E-Verify, a federal database run by the Department of Homeland Security.
But the vote came after significant changes. Initially, the measure would have applied to all public and private employers — a position backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida.
But an amendment pushed by Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, changed the bill to carve out employers in the agriculture industry and some public contractors.
“This is an effort to create something between the two extremes that exist regarding the use of an E-Verification system,” Simmons said.
Under the revised version, owners and operators of farms, medical marijuana nurseries, food processing plants, cotton gins and canneries would not need to use the electronic system, which is devised to block undocumented immigrants from entering the workforce.
The amendment also would exclude any agricultural employer who “either recruits, solicits, hires, employs, furnishes, or transports any migrant or seasonal agricultural worker.”
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, argued in the committee that it is not fair to exempt the agriculture industry while requiring other businesses to implement the program.
He tried to amend the bill to remove the construction, health care and hospitality industries — all of which have fiercely opposed the measure inpast years — but the committee rejected his attempts.
Meanwhile Tuesday, two powerful figures in the state also slammed the move by lawmakers to exclude one industry from the mandate.
Mike Fernandez, a billionaire health-care executive and former GOP donor who opposes E-Verify, told The News Service of Florida the agricultural carve-out suggests it is meant to protect the business ties of some lawmakers.
“The argument is that a lot of Republicans in Tallahassee, politicians in Tallahassee who are making a living of the agriculture world, are exempting themselves,” Fernandez, a Miami-area resident, said in an interview Tuesday.
Echoing that thought, Congressman Matt Gaetz, a close ally of DeSantis and President Donald Trump, said the amendment might as well be called the “selective amnesty for big donors amendment.”
Gaetz went further and suggested Sen. Wilton Simpson, an egg farmer who is slated to become Senate president after the 2020 elections, was among those who would benefit from the exemption.
“Sen. Simpson wants to run for agriculture commissioner so he’s pandering to the special interest with his amendment,” Gaetz told The News Service of Florida.
Simpson, R-Trilby, did not immediately respond to requests for comment through a spokeswoman.
Although the amended bill cleared its first hurdle in the Judiciary Committee, it still has to be approved by two more committees before it can get a vote in the full Senate.
Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who chairs the Republican Party of Florida, said in an interview last week that he plans to use the “full weight” of the party to push lawmakers to send “the toughest and strongest E-Verify proposal” to the governor’s desk.
But other Senate Republicans remain wary about the bill. For instance, Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told the News Service a vote will be “complicated” for him.
“If it was a proposal that only applied to government jobs, I think that would make it a lot easier for all of us. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t vote for the others,” he said last week.
It is not clear whether the governor would approve the bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, as it was changed Tuesday. Not only would the bill exempt the agriculture industry, but the mandate to use E-Verify would also be phased in.
Employers with at least 500 employees would need to do the check starting Jan. 1, 2021. Businesses with at least 150 employees would not be required to use the system until Jan. 1, 2022, under the bill.
The measure also would require the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to adopt rules for what would qualify as an alternative employment verification system that private employers could use. The system would need to be “substantially equivalent to or more effective than E-Verify.”
Opponents of the measure argued on Tuesday the state is forcing businesses to use an imperfect federal database that has erroneously flagged Americans as not being eligible to work in the United States.
The most recent independent report of the federal system shows 6 percent of people were mistakenly flagged as not being authorized to work, according to a bill analysis by Senate staff members. The report was conducted in 2012 by the firm Westat and it looked at data from 2009, the bill analysis said.
“I just want to remind us that when we have a system that makes huge mistakes, it is the individual who suffers,” Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said Tuesday before voting against the proposal.
But supporters of E-Verify, a system whose is currently mandatory for state agencies overseen by the governor, argue implementing the immigration check for all employers would eliminate a “magnet” for illegal workers in Florida.
“Quality of life is a paycheck, and the magnet is the opportunity to enter the job market,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, a proposal in the House that would exempt all private employers from the E-Verify mandate has not been heard in committees. Sponsor Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said last week he plans to make tweaks to the private employer provision, but he would not provide details.
Source: Ana Ceballos, News Service of Florida