Florida Senate bill would suspend licenses of employers who don't use E-Verify

The Villages, Florida, November 25, 2019: Governor Ron DeSantis declares his support for making use of E-Verify by private employers in Florida mandatory.

E-Verify is a web-based system administered by the U.S. Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, through which employers electronically confirm the employment eligibility of their workers.

Two prominent Florida Senators have filed a bill that would require private employers in Florida to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of every new hire. Under the proposal, private employers would lose “all applicable licenses” to operate in Florida if they fail to register with the E-Verify system.

The bill requires the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement upon learning the identity of an unauthorized worker.

The office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told the News Service of Florida in September that the Governor would support legislation mandating the system for private employers.

E-Verify in Florida is an emotionally charged issue

The bill was filed by Republican Senator Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa), a former President of the Florida Senate, and Senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), the Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. It is expected to draw heated and emotional debate during the 2020 legislative session.

Opponents of E-Verify argue that the federal government is responsible for determining immigration policy — and this is true. Proponents note how Congress has proven incapable of enforcing existing immigration law, especially regarding employment — that is also very true.

Similar proposals were introduced in past sessions and failed, due to fierce opposition from the agricultural, tourism and construction sectors, which include some major GOP political donors.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in 2019 banning sanctuary cities in Florida. During debates over that legislation, Senator Tom Lee argued that E-Verify would be more effective in stopping illegal immigration, because the job market serves as a magnet drawing foreign nationals into the United States.

In a mid-December interview with The News Service of Florida, Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, announced his opposition to the measure. In sharp contrast, Governor DeSantis has made the proposal one of his top priorities for the new legislative session, which starts on January 14.

GOP county officials endorse E-Verify amidst strong public support

On January 27, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters held a voice vote of county GOP officials via conference call, in which they endorsed Senate Bill 664. As explained by Politico, it's rare for the Florida GOP to take sides in an issue that splits its members, but Gruters wanted to affirm support for Governor Ron DeSantis, since he has made this a priority issue.

Despite the strong opposition from important business sectors, Republican politicians in Florida find it wise to support E-Verify, due to its overwhelming public support. On February 13, Florida Politics reported a new survey by St. Pete Polls which showed that Floridians favor requiring private employers to use E-Verify by a whopping 60% to 28% margin.

Florida Senate Bill 664: Verification of Employment Eligibility

The bill was filed by Senators Tom Lee and Joe Gruters on October 24, and referred to the Florida Senate Committees on Judiciary, Commerce and Tourism, and Rules on November 6.

On February 11, the bill was approved by the Committee on Judiciary in a 4-2 vote along party lines. The bill passed with amendments submitted by committee chairman Senator David Simmons. The amendments “carve out” the agriculture industry, which employs a powerful lobby in Florida politics. The amended bill will also phase in the requirement for smaller employers, as follows:

  • Employers having at least 500 employees are exempt until January 1, 2021.
  • Employers having at least 250 employees are exempt until July 1, 2021.
  • Employers having at least 150 employees are exempt until January 1, 2022.

Amendments proposed by committee vice-chairman Senator José Javier Rodríguez (D-Miami) to carve out health care providers, restaurant and lodging businesses, the construction industry, religious institutions, and schools all failed to gain approval.

Note that in the St. Pete Polls survey mentioned above, the question represented a rigid requirement with no industry-specific carve outs.