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Politics

'Legal,' 'Illegal' Blur at Immigration Hearing

January 23, 2011 - 6:00pm

An odd-bedfellows alliance of button-down business groups and rabble-rousing migrant-rights advocates Monday condemned legislative efforts to curb illegal immigration in Florida.

Representatives of the state's largest business lobbies, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, met before a special Senate committee gathering information and taking the state's pulse on immigration, all to get ready for the 2011 legislative session.

Without necessarily distinguishing between illegal and legal workers, the alliance hailed the "diversity" and "innovation" brought by immigrants. And the consensus was -- even if illegal -- foreign-born workers provide more to the state economy than they cost in social services.

Its critical that Florida protect its strong brand as a state that welcomes tourists, promotes international trade, and supplies much of the nations fruits and vegetables, said Adam Babington, vice president of government affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Florida must use caution with any immigration restrictions to help ensure we dont provoke an economic boycott or restrict economic growth," he warned.

Putting a finer point on the issue, Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition said the state cannot afford what she called "mass-criminalizing, anti-immigrant bills."

While the Chamber soft-pedaled the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, Rodriguez passionately rejected the terminology altogether. "'Illegal' is the N-word of today," she declared, contending that the U.S. workplace has devolved into an "apartheid system."

Dale Brill, head of the Chamber Foundation, said, "Workers chase jobs. They contribute to the economy." Noting that the "cyclical" nature of the slowing economy has apparently netted a reduction in illegal labor, Brill suggested that continued immigration is needed to pump up business.

Another business group, the Associated Industries of Florida, directly attacked the federal E-Verify employee-screening program, one of the more modest immigration reforms.

Brewster Bevis, a newly hired AIF vice president, listed a compendium of logistical and technical pitfalls, ranging from pernicious identity fraud to "public-relations nightmares" suffered by employers who used E-Verify.

Republican lawmakers -- including Greg Evers, R-Crestview; Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton; Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville; and Rhonda Storms, R-Brandon -- rarely challenged the Chamber or AIF directly. But they expressed impatience with nuanced rhetoric that glossed over the legal status of undocumented immigrants and downplayed the attendant social costs.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who chaired Monday's hearing, said she tried to balance the pro and con debate. But the three-hour meeting was dominated by speakers critical -- or at least skeptical -- of tightened enforcement at the state level.

In the last 50 minutes of the session, enforcement advocates argued that illegal immigration hurts the lowest-skilled domestic workers while raising taxpayers' costs.

David Caulkett, vice president and founder of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, said an estimated 575,000 unauthorized workers in Florida are exploited "in many shameful ways."

But, he added, the real victims are Florida's taxpayers who are stuck with the tab and U.S. citizens who are crowded out of the job market.

"Post-industrial America does not need foreign workers, yet we accept more immigrant workers than all other nations combined," Caulkett observed.

He praised Hays' sponsorship of Senate Bill 518, which would implement E-Verify to screen new hires in the private sector, as Gov. Rick Scott has done in state government.

Jack Martin, from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, disputed testimony from an earlier hearing where a Florida International University professor claimed that crime rates by immigrants were lower than rates for U.S. citizens. In fact, Martin said, crime rates for illegal aliens run 50 percent higher.

Revisiting previous negative discussion about states' rights in immigration law and the federal E-Verify system, Martin said that whatever the federal government does or does not do, it would be "irresponsible" for Florida not to adopt E-Verify.

"It cuts off the job magnet," Martin said.

Flores said the third and final immigration forum is tentatively scheduled for Monday, Feb. 7, at which time public testimony will be taken.

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

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