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Politics

E-Verify Gains Support; Will It Stand Alone?

January 26, 2011 - 6:00pm

With Florida's only immigration-enforcement law blocked by former Attorney General Bill McCollum, state lawmakers are warming to the E-Verify employee-screening program.

A House Judiciary Committee workshop on Thursday rolled out the latest E-Verify statistics, which showed continual improvement in the system's accuracy.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office's 2010 year-end report found that E-Verify approved 97.4 percent of new hires nationally. The database rejected 2.3 percent and 0.3 percent were classified as a "mismatch" or error in documentation.

An independent Westat study from 2009 registered a mismatch rate of 0.7 percent.

Gov. Rick Scott, in one of his first executive orders, directed all agencies under his control to use E-Verify for new hires. Currently, 15 states require government employers to use E-Verify, and three states require all employers to use it.

Bills by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, would bring Florida businesses under the E-Verify umbrella.

But business groups are fighting back. Out West, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued -- and lost -- at U.S. district and circuit courts, which upheld the legality of E-Verify laws.

While the Chamber's appeal is pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Associated Industries of Florida is battling E-Verify legislation here.

Newly hired AIF vice president for external affairs, Brewster Bevis, contended Thursday that E-Verify is "flawed" -- even as the mismatch (error) rate has dropped to a fraction of a percent. When asked about legal challenges by rejected applicants, Bevis admitted he was "not aware" of any.

Though the applicant-screening program is free, Bevis said E-Verify could impose a "financial hardship" on some small businesses because its Internet-based program requires a computer for access.

If legislators think resistance to E-Verify is stiff, they will encounter a hailstorm of opposition if they pursue Arizona-style enforcement initiatives.

Judiciary Chairman William Snyder, R-Stuart, who is running for sheriff in Martin County, is eager to showcase his tough-on-immigration bonafides. But one immigration-control group says a sweeping enforcement bill as envisioned by Snyder is set up to fail.

Adding broader Arizona-style criminal provisions would be a "bill killer," predicted Jack Oliver, legislative liaison for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement (FLIMEN).

Republican leaders have blocked 29 immigration-control bills in recent sessions, and Oliver suspects that the GOP hierarchy is angling to deep-six any such legislation again this year. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Cabinet-level Republican, has already spoken out against such efforts.

Despite campaign pledges to "get tough" on illegal aliens, Republican leaders -- who control both houses with supermajorities -- generally align with corporate interests that adamantly oppose tougher immigration laws as "bad for business."

Oliver said Snyder's gambit could allow GOP power brokers to play politics both ways: loading up a popular but controversial law-enforcement measure that is shot down by political and legal crossfire.

Republicans can then go back to constituents and say they tried, but were derailed by: a) the courts, b) Democrats and migrant-rights groups, c) business interests, d) all of the above.

Caulkett said the doomsday scenario is assured if GOP leaders follow through with plans to incorporate all immigration measures, including E-Verify, into a single omnibus committee bill.

Unbeknown to lawmakers, Republican Attorney General McCollum knocked out the state's only immigration-enforcement law -- Florida Statute 448.09.

In a Sept. 7, 2007, letter to Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen, McCollum advised that the Florida law was pre-empted by federal law.

Frustrated by the "runaround" his office received from federal immigration agencies, McKeithen was using the statute to arrest and charge employers who "knowingly" hired illegal aliens.

McKeithen told Sunshine State News that his department took down businesses by using FS 448.09. "We had 10 or 12 cases -- some pled, some paid fines," he said.

Curiously, Florida Department of Law Enforcement general counsel Mike Ramage testified before a Senate committee on Monday that he could not find "a single" case that used the Florida statute.

Though McKeithen said Ramage's report was incorrect, the FDLE misinformation was repeated Thursday by Judiciary Committee staff director Randy Havlicak.

More than three years on, lingering confusion over the status of Florida's existing immigration law doesn't reflect well on efforts to write new laws.

"[448.09] is unconstitutional, antiquated and should be removed," said David Caulkett, vice president and founder of FLIMEN.

Harrell said she would author a bill to repeal the statute.

--

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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