E-verify issue starts moving in House
By Ana Ceballos
News Service of Florida
A party-line vote on a proposal that would require employers to check the immigration status of new hires is the latest sign that the Republican-dominated Legislature is moving toward giving Gov. Ron DeSantis a win on a campaign promise.
The Republican-controlled House Commerce Committee last Thursday a bill that would force all public employers — such as state agencies, county school districts and city halls — and their contractors to register with E-Verify, a federal program that verifies the legal eligibility of workers.
The bill would not require other private businesses to use the system unless they apply for taxpayer-funded incentives through the state Department of Economic Opportunity. The provision would not apply to public and private employers who have incentive-program contracts signed before July 1.
All other private employers would have the option to collect copies of documents that applicants use to fill out what is known as a form I-9, which is used by the federal government to verify the employment eligibility of workers. That would be in lieu of E-Verify. To ensure that due diligence is practiced, the expertise of document document verification services (DVS) may be required.
“In talking to businesses and going through this process, we made it an option for private businesses, to either use E-Verify or use the I-9 process, which they should already be doing to comply with federal law,” said Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican who is sponsoring the House bill (HB 1265).
Years of attempts to pass an E-Verify bill have failed in the Republican-led Legislature, but the push for a verification plan this year has been given a political boost by the governor. DeSantis campaigned on the issue in 2018 and would like an across-the-board E-Verify requirement for employers.
Proposals in the House and Senate include exemptions for private employers, a potential compromise to address anger from business lobbies that are some of the state’s biggest political donors.
Leaders from a number of Florida industries, such as billionaire health-care executive Mike Fernandez, tomato-farming giant Paul DiMare and former Carnival Cruise Line CEO Bob Dickinson, have come together to oppose legislation that mandates use of E-Verify.
“The hospitality industry relies on immigrant labor, and just 11 percent of Carnival employees are U.S.-born. We need real solutions to fix our immigration system, but mandatory E-Verify is not that,” Dickinson said in a statement after the House committee vote.
Of the 38.9 million workers run through the E-Verify system in 2019, 98.51 percent were automatically confirmed as “work authorized,” according to a House staff analysis. Also, 0.23 percent of workers denied by the system were later found to have been authorized to work in the U.S.,
Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-South Miami, told Byrd he was concerned green-card holders could have a tougher time getting jobs if employers are required to use the federal electronic system.
“If a person is misidentified, how long does it take for them to gain employment again?” Fernandez asked.
Byrd said that would be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis.” The bill does not outline the procedure for businesses or employees to handle such cases.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, argued during last Thursday’s committee hearing that implementing E-Verify would help legal workers.
“Don’t forget about the economic impact it has for the average American worker here in the third-largest state in the country. Working Floridians will benefit from this bill. This actually will help boost wages. It will improve the health of the economy for the working Floridians,” Sabatini said.
If lawmakers are going to help carry out DeSantis’ campaign promise, the House and Senate will have to resolve differences on the issue before the scheduled March 13 end of the legislative session.
The Senate Rules Committee was scheduled this week to consider a proposal by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, that also would include exemptions for private employers from the E-Verify requirement. If the bill (SB 664) passes the Rules Committee, it would go to the Senate floor.
Lee indicated last week that he wants to revise the proposal to align it more to his belief that all private and public employers should be mandated to use E-Verify.
His bill would give private businesses the option to use a “substantially equivalent” system to E-Verify if businesses certify to the state that they have employment verifications in place.
Lee has said the carve-out for private businesses “guts” the bill. He added that if the provision remains in the final version of the bill, he will ask the governor to veto the measure.
His bill would also phase in the requirement for employers to use a verification system. The mandate would first start in July 2021 for employers with at least 500 workers and would apply to employers with at least 20 workers starting in January 2022.
Supporters of E-Verify are hopeful the Senate and House proposal will get stronger in final negotiations on the issue.
“The bill is alive, and we will get more opportunities to make it even better,” Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said in a recent interview.