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Senate Passes E-Verify, Though It's 'Not The Version' GOP Backers Wanted

Phil Sears
AP Photo

The Florida Senate has passed a bill requiring employers use the federal E-Verify system to ensure they don’t hire undocumented workers. Though, the version of the bill that passed isn’t quite what its sponsor envisioned.

“It creates an option for employers, in addition to E-Verify, to use an I-9 system,” sponsor Republican Sen. Tom Lee said of his bill in its current form.

Lee’s proposal has taken on several changes throughout the process. Those include a provision allowing private employers to sidestep E-Verify, which checks a new hire’s eligibility to work in the U.S., and instead use a federal I-9 form. That means, just like at the federal level, E-Verify wouldn’t be mandatory for private businesses. Lee says E-Verify is a faster, easier way to check an employee’s status.

“(The federal government) created a form, called an I-9, which lets businesses who have questions about the authenticity of an individual to work in the United States, to gather information to use for employment verification,” Lee told his colleagues, speaking on the Senate floor Monday. “The Department of Homeland Security, knowing that this law exists in the United States and wanting to provide a tool for businesses to make it easy to comply with federal law, has created the E-Verify system.”

Public employers in the state would still have to use E-Verify under the bill. Private employers that don’t use the E-Verify or I-9 systems would have their licenses to do business suspended, and if they violate the rule more than three times those licenses could be revoked permanently. But critics of the legislation, mostly Democrats, say it doesn’t stop at simply enforcing compliance with federal law.

Democratic Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez says at issue is state government data collection.

“It’s been called the E-Verify bill, but goes quite a bit further than E-Verify,” Rodriguez said in debating the bill. “We have a section, or several sections – one that says, copies of all records maintained by employers must be provided to any state or federal government agency upon request. Followed up by, the Department may conduct random audits of employment files of those employers that do not register with the E-Verify system.”

Rodriguez says that provision is government overreach.

“It is a pretty wide license for state government to go fishing through employment records that the state otherwise … has not shown an intent to do,” he added.

Also putting up red flags to Rodriguez is a provision compelling the state Department of Economic Opportunity to create a complaint process, where the agency would receive and look into complaints of employers hiring undocumented workers.

“It says, must, shall, must, shall, must … may not independently make a final determination,” Rodriguez said of the bill’s mandate to DEO. “Effectively, what the DEO does is, they receive these complaints … of suspected, unauthorized work, and they send it to the federal government. If it gets confirmed, they immediately send it to ICE.”

It’s not just Democrats who have piled on criticism of the bill. In the House, Speaker Jose Oliva has criticized the same provisions of the bill as Rodriguez – something he says diverges from the House’s version.

“It’s very much in line with the House proposal – some concerns remain. In particular, empowering executive agencies to have police powers, and do random checks,” Oliva said. “That is something that is of tremendous concern.”

Oliva told reporters over the weekend the Senate bill in its current form is troubling to him “as a free-marketer.”

“As someone that believes that people should have their businesses and as long as they’re operating legally, should be allowed to – that we’re giving agencies the random ability to show up and do audits – there’s something about that that doesn’t say America to me,” said the House Speaker.

But others in the GOP, like statewide party chair Sen. Joe Gruters, say passing E-Verify legislation even under a compromise, is better than nothing.

“I know, Sen. Lee, this bill has gone through numerous versions of the bill, and this is probably not the version where we wanted to end up. But at the end of the day, I’d say this is a win for Florida,” Gruters said.

The bill ultimately passed on a 22-18 vote, with Panama City Senator George Gainer as the lone Republican in the chamber to cast a down vote. The Senate’s version has been sent to the House.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.