Attacked by Hispanics and ridiculed by the mainstream media, Arizona-style immigration legislation appears to be dead on arrival in Tallahassee this year.
Meanwhile, a different approach that would give skittish Republicans political cover has emerged. The only question is: Will GOP leaders let it pass?
The Florida Citizens Employment Protection Act would mandate that all employers use the federal E-Verify program to screen prospective employees' legal status to work in this country. It also would suspend the business licenses of companies that refuse to sign an affidavit declaring they have no illegal aliens working for them.
Supporters say the Citizens Employment Protection Act avoids the legal and logistical pitfalls of racial profiling and turning local police into immigration agents. By targeting employers, the bill would effectively block illegals from the job market.
Gov. Rick Scott has already signed an executive order implementing E-Verify at all state agencies. Now, lawmakers are maneuvering to extend E-Verify to the private sector.
The E-Verify initiative is not new. Last year, the Florida House passed an E-Verify bill authored by then-Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo. HB 219 cleared the House 112-0, but was bottled up in the Senate, where committee Chairman Jeremy Ring refused to let it come up for a hearing.
Adams has moved on to Congress, but Ring, a Democrat from Margate, is back as committee chair this year, and supporters of E-Verify are bracing for battle.
"It's not a complicated issue. We cut off the jobs, and [illegal immigrants] won't come. And those who are here will leave," says Jack Oliver, head of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement (FLIMEN).
But in addition to Ring, immigration-control advocates face pushback from the Hispanic Caucus, including some Republicans, who say enforcement efforts jeopardize the GOP's electoral chances with Latinos.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who retired from Congress last year, told the Hispanic Leadership Network conference this month:
"If [the Republican Party] becomes perceived as an anti-immigrant party, America, being a country of immigrants, will never allow us to be the majority party."
Media pundits have parroted this line. Writing in the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday, columnist Mike Thomas took a swipe at Scott: "It's not like Mexican biologists are sneaking across the border to work for the Department of Environmental Protection."
LEGISLATIVE GAMES: BURDENING A BILL
In some respects, Republican bill minders appear to be their own worst enemies.
While Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, propose tightly focused E-Verify legislation, other Republicans are maneuvering to attach Arizona-style enforcement wording that would expose the bills to withering political crossfire.
Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, has been conducting hearings on his proposal to adopt Arizona's controversial SB 1070, and he shows no signs of backing off. (Not coincidentally, the term-limited Snyder is eyeing a run for Sheriff Bob Crowder's job in Martin County.)
But rather than looking tough on illegal immigration, an attempt to stick Arizona-style language into the Harrell-Hays bills looks more like a ploy to sink E-Verify politically.
"SB 1070 is a bill killer," FLIMEN's Oliver says.
Indeed, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, now says he would not vote for the Snyder-like bill that he himself plans to sponsor in the Senate.
By contrast, Oliver says, "The Hispanic Caucus should support the Florida Citizens Employment Protection Act because it cannot be used in any way to racially profile people. All employers must use [E-Verify] and all employees must be screened."
Utilizing the Social Security and Homeland Security databases and accessing driver's license photos, the Florida E-Verify mandate would only apply to new hires.
If the system kicks back a name, the job applicant is given the reason and he or she has eight days to resolve the problem with Social Security or DHS.
The majority of nonconfirmed E-Verify queries involve applicants who have a Social Security card under a maiden name and have applied for a job under their married name. Other kickbacks include newly naturalized citizens who have not yet applied for a Social Security card.
E-Verify use is expanding across the country. The system has been upgraded to handle up to 60 million requests at a time, and independent audits show it has an accuracy rate exceeding 95 percent.
'RED FLAGS' WAVING OVER THE CAPITOL
Despite the conventional wisdom that Florida Republicans are "anti-immigrant," the record suggests otherwise.
In the last three years, GOP leaders have blocked 29 illegal immigration bills in committees. Only one bill, Adams' 2010 E-Verify measure, cleared the House. None emerged from the Senate.
This year, House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Republican member of the Hispanic Caucus, says E-Verify "is on the table."
Along with Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi appears amenable to expanding the use of E-Verify. And Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who last week announced he will challenge Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate in 2012, has said he's eager to see immigration legislation passed.
Still, the question remains: What kind of bill will GOP leaders allow to emerge?
State Sen. Anitere Flores, a Hispanic member, will resume hearings on immigration legislation in Tallahassee on Monday. But border-control advocates point to "red flags."
The Miami Republican is a supporter of the DREAM Act, which would grant in-state tuition to individuals who entered this country illegally before age 17. Appointed by Haridopolos to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, Flores also belongs to a Latino organization that branded the Arizona law "racist."
Business organizations ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Florida's agriculture industry claim that restrictions on the flow of cheap labor will devastate the domestic economy and send prices soaring.
But the chamber failed to derail E-Verify in Western states when it lost its challenge in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. (A decision is pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.)
As for Florida's agriculture sector, Oliver cites J&J Produce of Loxahatchee. Without resorting to undocumented workers, the company uses an existing federal visa program to hire 150 Mexican nationals, along with domestic employees, to plant, harvest and ship its crops.
Philip Martin, a University of California-Davis professor, has studied the relationship between labor costs and food prices. He found that even a 40 percent increase in farm-laborer wages only increase the price of fruits and vegetables by an average of just 0.4 percent. He calculates that as a $16 annual rise in a typical family's grocery bill.
Meantime, illegal immigration imposes ever-higher costs on Florida taxpayers.
Government studies calculate that roughly 1 million illegal aliens currently reside in the state.
In 2006, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated that Florida taxpayers shouldered roughly $1.82 billion in expenses annually related to the schooling, medical care and incarceration of illegal immigrants.
Oliver says full use of E-Verify is supported economically and politically.
"E-Verify is business friendly," he says. Likewise, he believes that the E-Verify model is politically correct ... in a good way.
"The Hispanic Caucus should be very supportive of E-Verify because it ensures a legal labor force. Poor people of every ethnicity are the people most affected by illegal labor," he says.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.