Dozens of tea parties, including the state's largest, say they will support an E-Verify immigration bill at the 2012 Legislature.
But with some libertarian-leaning conservatives balking at the issue, the path to passage looks more precarious than ever.
"Most in the tea party are concerned about anything that is illegal and does not uphold the rule of law. E-Verify is one way to uphold our legal immigration laws and we support it," said Billie Tucker, who chairs the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville.
Tucker's comment came in the wake of a Sunshine State News story reporting that The Tea Party Network was merely "watching" the employment-screening legislation.
Paul Henry, who sits on the steering committee of the 80-member network, said, "I'm against E-Verify because it is yet anotherfederal database. E-Verify, along with so many more laws here in Florida, involves being guilty until you prove yourself innocent."
Other tea partiers say Henry, a retired law-enforcement officer, is outside the mainstream of the tea movement.
"Most in the tea party movement are very concerned about illegal immigration. The Tea Party Network does not speak for us," said Tucker, whose First Coast Tea Party, with a membership list of some 10,000, belongs to another large tea coalition called the Florida Alliance.
Even fellow members of TTPN vehemently disagree with Henry.
"I am confident that Mr. Henry does not speak for the majority of the group," said Jack Oliver, legislative director for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, a TTPN member.
Judith Hood, a member of Tea Party Manatee, said her Bradenton-based group remains solidly behind E-Verify legislation, as it was at the 2011 session.
The latest E-Verify measures -- House Bill 1315 and Senate Bill 1638 -- were introduced Friday by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne. Their bills are similar to a measure sponsored by Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, last year.
Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Larry Metz, R-Eustis, signed on as co-sponsors of this year's legislation.
While several Southeastern states have mandated private employers screen new hires through the free federal database, Florida's E-Verify push, along with every other immigration-control bill, has failed at the Legislature in Tallahassee.
Such recalcitrance has left some tea partiers increasingly frustrated with Republican leadership which controls both houses of the Legislature. Though talking tough about illegal immigration on the campaign trail, GOP lawmakers have yet to deliver any bills tackling the issue.
"The state will continue to allow [Sen.] J.D. Alexander to stymie immigration reform because it benefits his farm," said Fort Walton Beach Tea Party chairman Henry Kelley and TTPN member, who declared, "E-Verify is already dead on arrival."
Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who chairs the Budget Committee, was not available for comment.
Oliver said, "E-Verify is about protecting the jobs of legal workers, so there are really only two sides to this issue. Elected officials support the hiring of illegal aliens or the hiring of fellow citizens.
"At the end of the day, if elected officials are unwilling to protect our jobs, then maybe it's time that those elected officials lost their jobs."
Tea party groups face an uphill fight against an eclectic combination of business and religious groups. Last year, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida were joined by a phalanx of pastors preaching "social justice" in assailing E-Verify.
This year, GOP leaders say their top priorities will be the budget and redistricting, and have expressed little interest in other issues. Opposition to E-Verify appears to be both bipartisan and formidable.
Nearly two-dozen lawmakers are members of "We Are Florida," a group spawned by the Florida Immigrant Coalition that vows to "raise our voices against proposed racial profiling laws ... and empower immigrant communities."
The group's GOP members include: House Majority Leader Carlos Cantera-Lopez; Sens. Anitere Flores, Erik Fresen, Rene Garcia, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Reps. Luis R. Garcia Jr., Jeanette Nunez, Frank Artiles, Ana Rivas Logan, and Carlos Trujillo.
Democrats include: Sens. Oscar Braynon, Larcenia Bullard, Nan Rich and Gwen Margolis, and Reps. Richard Steinberg, Cynthia Stafford, Barbara Watson, Daphne Campbell, Dwight Bullard and John Patrick Julien.
Despite opponents' unsubstantiated warnings of racial profiling and Henry's claim that E-Verify is "unconstitutional," federal courts have upheld the program in states where it has been enacted.
In Alabama, which implemented E-Verify as part of its new illegal alien law, unemployment has fallen, school enrollment has tapered off, andthe costs associated with providing government services to illegals have declined.
In 2010, the Foundation for American Immigration Reform calculated that Florida expends $5.5 billion annually on its estimated 1 million illegal residents, including $3.3 billion for education, $531 million for Medicaid and $317 million for various welfare programs.
Patricia Sullivan, chairwoman of the Tea Party Network, which is hosting a Capitol reception for lawmakers Tuesday morning, said her group is "very interested in" a Medicaid reform bill that could curb benefits currently going to illegal immigrants.
The measure by Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has not yet been filed.
"We're watching Gaetz's bill and it looks like he may address Medicaid reform and, through a back door, address illegal immigrants through benefits. That is what we have been hoping for. Even a baby step in reform is a step in the right direction," Sullivan said.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.