After introducing an 11th-hour amendment and taking no testimony from opponents, Senate Judiciary Chairman Anitere Flores on Monday rammed through quick party-line approval of an immigration bill.
Passage of Senate Bill 2040 was immediately hailed by Senate President Mike Haridopolos as "the first significant step in stopping illegal immigration in Florida." Others begged to differ after the panel's hurried vote.
Late amendments created a loophole in what was initially a tight E-Verify bill requiring employers to use the federal database to screen job applicants. The adulterated measure now offers employers the alternative of verifying applicants' driver's licenses.
Though Republicans called the amendment an improvement, the driver's license provision fueled more controversy. An eclectic coalition of immigration advocates and businesses still opposes any state-imposed eligibility requirements, while immigration-control groups seethed over what they called betrayal by GOP leaders.
After the vote, some frustrated attendees in the packed committee room loudly chanted "Let Us Speak," and the panel quickly adjourned.
Tensions were high throughout the day, as a minority- and immigrant-rights coalition staged a press conference to denounce the legislation.
Florida has many problems, immigrants aren't one of them. The current version of SB 2040 will turn every county in Florida into a little Arizona.At a time when even Arizona, Mississippi, and Kentucky are backing away from their immigration bills, we have no idea why Florida is still pushing through with this," Florida New Majority said in a statement.
On the other side, Floridians for Immigration Enforcement produced automated phone messages and a YouTube video over the weekend that called on Haridopolos to rein in Flores.
Two weeks ago, when Flores gutted the E-Verify language, Haridopolos said, "Rest assured, the legislation will strengthen E-Verify and get rid of the loopholes that currently exist.
Monday's vote intensified skeptics' suspicion of political manipulation. By diluting the original measure, E-Verify supporters now fear that the amendment could sink the bill altogether. Some suspect that was the Republicans' goal all along.
"The amendment watered down E-Verify so much that it is dead. No employer will need to use the system," said tea party activist Robin Stublen.
Flores defended the driver's license provision by saying that only those licenses meeting the latest federal REAL ID specifications will be accepted.
But David Caulkett of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement called the so-called document alternative "a hornets nest of litigation."
"This would be extremely complex for legislators to implement and employers to use," Caulkett told Sunshine State News.
Business groups flinch at the prospect of vetting and swiping driver's licenses. The newly amended SB 2040 requires employers to use a drivers license bar code reader.
"Business groups testified that employers do not have computers, but now they are required to purchase a special device with special software.Whats up with this nonsensical requirement?" said Caulkett.
By contrast, the federal E-Verify database program is quick, easy and increasingly foolproof, studies say.
Prior to the committee vote, Flores said, "I've been called names I wouldn't want my son to hear." But instead of "appeasing both sides," as she put it, Flores' ramrod handling of Monday's hearing pleased virtually no one as scores of individuals and organizations who had signed up to speak were denied the opportunity to testify.
Flores earlier had entertained nearly two hours of testimony on other unrelated bills, keeping the bulk of the audience on hold.
Nevertheless, Haridopolos, who is running for U.S. Senate, applauded the panel's action in his press release issued minutes after the vote:
This is a Florida-specific solution to address the issue of illegal immigration in our state. Florida will step up and protect its citizens because the federal government has failed us.
A former state senator speaking privately wasn't so impressed with Flores' stewardship.
"The agreement is to get it out of her committee so they can cut it up," the senator said, citing a time-honored legislative gambit.
Flores did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.