The Florida Senate OK’s tougher requirements for businesses to check the legal status of new hires. While it still has to clear the House, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been forced to scale-back his E-Verify demand.
TALLAHASSEE — A scaled-back version of a Gov. Ron DeSantis priority cleared the Florida Senate Monday, legislation toughening requirements for businesses to make sure new hires are legally eligible to work in this country.
DeSantis wanted all Florida employers to have to use the federal E-Verify database to check an applicant’s legal status. But the Senate proposal includes a lesser option that had been demanded by the House.
Seen as bolstering President Donald Trump’s re-election theme aimed at combating illegal immigration, the measure was approved 22-18 in a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“What we’re asking employers to do in this bill is simply follow federal law,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, sponsor of the measure (SB 664). “I don’t perceive this to be over-burdensome.”
But DeSantis and lawmakers have drawn heavy pushback from the agriculture, tourism and construction industries worried about the new requirement’s impact on a workforce that often relies on undocumented workers.
Related: E-Verify emerges as tough test for DeSantis
The House has been cool to the idea all along. But a key provision of the House’s version of the bill now has been incorporated into the Senate’s E-Verify proposal.
The Senate is going along with the House by demanding that businesses either check E-Verify or a similar electronic verification system, or just have federal I-9 forms completed by new workers, basically a standard U.S. labor requirement that’s been in place for more than 30 years.
Completing an I-9 means an employee must present a U.S. passport, legal resident card, immigrant visa or similar identification.
DeSantis sought to toughen this I-9 option by giving the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity authority to conduct random employment audits of private businesses that choose not to use E-Verify. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, criticized this provision, saying Saturday: “That doesn’t say American to me.”
About two dozen states, including Florida, currently require E-Verify use by at least some government employers, but only eight states require it for all businesses. Most states with the broader standard are in the Southeast, which DeSantis says makes Florida an outlier.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, echoed some of Oliva’s criticism Monday, saying: “It’s a pretty wide license for state government to go fishing through employment records.”
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He also warned that it could be used against a company by a competitor, flooding DEO with complaints that a rival is hiring undocumented workers, triggering state investigations of a firm.
Companies face fines or license suspension for not complying with the law, and the bill allows undocumented workers to be reported to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
The legislation, which still must go before the full House, would affect all private employers in Florida, public employers and government contractors with more than 10 employees.
Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who also serves as the Florida GOP chair, argued the legislation is needed, saying that “illegals” are coming into the state in search of work and a better life for their families.
Gruters said the bill “will turn off the spigot.”
DeSantis vowed to enact E-Verify during his 2018 election campaign, but last year didn’t push the issue. But in November, on the eve of a Trump rally in Broward County, the governor renewed his call for action on E-Verify.