ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Following the passage of the controversial anti-“sanctuary cities” bill last year (which was popular with the public, polls showed) top Florida Republicans announced in advance of the 2020 session that they were prepared to go where no previous Florida Legislature has gone before: require private companies to use E-Verify, the federal online system used by businesses to identify the legal status of their workforce.


Gov. Ron DeSantis announced immediately that he was supportive of the proposal, and reiterated that message during a portion of his State of the State address last week in Tallahassee.

“Our low-income workers also shouldn’t have their wages depressed by cheap, foreign labor,” he said. “Assuring a legal workforce through E-Verify will be good for the rule of law: it will protect taxpayers, and it will place an upward pressure on the wages of Floridians who work in blue-collar jobs.”

Competing bill more palatable to businesses?

After complaints from the business community, a competing E-Verify bill was recently introduced by Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters in the Senate and Neptune Beach Republican Cord Byrd in the House (the same sponsors of the 2019 sanctuary cities bill) that would be far less onerous on the private sector. This bill requires that only companies doing business with the state would have to use E-Verify.

In 2011, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order mandating that all state agencies use E-Verify. So in essence, the Gruters/Byrd proposal would just codify that order into law.

The bill to mandate that all businesses use E-Verify to vet their employees' legal status is sponsored by eastern Hillsborough County Republican state Sen. Tom Lee.

"People come to America for a better life,” he said in speaking to reporters shortly after DeSantis gave the State of the State last week. “A better life begins with a paycheck. The magnet that draws people to the United States of America is the job market.  And I’ve had way too many people showing up in my office with a MAGA hat on telling me how they’re hiring illegal immigrants in their businesses.  And I’m kind of looking at them going, ‘what, seriously?’"

Shortly after Lee filed his bill last fall, a group of powerful business people led by Miami entrepreneur Mike Fernandez lashed out, issuing a statement calling the proposal “economically harmful and morally wrong.”

“We put our economics ahead of our patriotism and our values sometimes,” Lee said.“We have 800,000 people who are working in our economy right now who are likely not here legally and we just have to decide, what’s the goal?”

Politics and Money

James Stratton, chair of the Tampa Bay Trump Club, says the only way that he can why the Republican-led Legislature would not pass Lee’s bill is because of “politics and money.”

“The only reason I believe businesses want it is that they get [undocumented immigrants] under the table and they don’t have to pay them what they pay other people, and that drives down the wages for people that are having trouble surviving,” Stratton says. “The reason we’re having our wages rising now for people is because we have more jobs available than there are people to fill them. That means businesses have to pay because that’s the marketplace. “

“This is all about making sure that Floridians have the best possible scenario,”  Gruters told Spectrum Bay News 9 last week about the competing proposals.

Lee says he’s committed to getting his bill passed.

“I am all in on this,” he says.

Timing, DeSantis popularity critical factors

The push for E-Verify in Florida comes in the same year that President Trump is banking on winning the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes in his quest for reelection. DeSantis is determined to see that happen.

The last time Republican lawmakers pushed hard to pass E-Verify in Florida was during the 2011 legislative session, Scott’s first year in office.

DeSantis possesses something that Scott didn’t have in 2011 - popularity. So says Darryl Paulson, Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg.

“At a time when few workers are available for those jobs, EV will impose economic burdens on these industries that will collapse the Florida economy," Paulson says.

Senate President Bill Galvano indicated right before the session started that he didn’t support the more restrictive proposal, saying it would create additional burdens for businesses.

Reflecting the importance (and volatility) of this issue, POLITICO Florida reported on Friday that Gruters, who doubles as the Republican Party of Florida’s Chairman, will host a conference call on Monday with all 67 local county chairs to have them come out in support of the Tom Lee-sponsored E-Verify bill.

"It may be a bridge too far for the lobbying pressure that exist in this building, but that's the process," Lee said in the Capitol last week. "All I ask for is an opportunity and a chance to work with my colleagues to craft something."