Florida businesses would have to verify through the federal government that newly hired employees aren't undocumented immigrants, under a measure that moved closer Tuesday to appearing before voters in 2018 despite opposition from agriculture interests.
A panel of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission unanimously backed a proposal (P 29) that would require all employers in Florida to use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Employment Authorization Program, known as E-Verify, to determine the eligibility of new employees.
Commissioner Rich Newsome, an attorney from Orlando who sponsored the proposal, said the measure has widespread support from the public. However, he said the issue has failed to garner legislative support in past years because powerful special interests tied to agriculture and construction make it “impossible” to advance.
“Everybody knows why it can't pass the Legislature despite the fact that if you polled the Republican base of the folks that are in power, it's off the chart,” Newsome said.
Adam Blalock, representing the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, told the commission's General Provisions Committee that if E-Verify is put in place, the agriculture industry would suffer a short-term labor shortage that would result in lost and unharvested crops.
“There must be a replacement labor for agriculture before E-Verify is established,” Blalock said.
“The federal government this year is working on legislation to better the H-2A guest worker program to try to remove some of the problems that agriculture faces to allow a more legal work force to be in the United States,” Blalock continued. “But domestic supply of agriculture workers, it's not there to replace those who would inevitably be not able to work if E-Verify was put into place. There is just not that population of people that is willing to do the hard work to get the food on your table. And that's not a popular opinion, but it is reality.”
Newsome said he offered a carve-out for agriculture interests that use guest-worker visas, but a number of mid-sized farmers are concerned about covering housing, transportation and health-care costs.
“The big guys are OK with it, but the little guys don't want to pay for the housing,” Newsome said, recounting the message he got from one grower.
E-Verify has been an issue in Florida more than a decade, drawing heightened attention as jobs grew scarce during the recession that started in 2007.
Seeking to crack down on the use of undocumented workers, Gov. Rick Scott pushed as part of his 2010 campaign platform the need to require all businesses in Florida to use E-Verify.
After pushback from business groups supporting the agricultural industry, Scott eventually signed an executive order shortly after taking office in 2011 that required state agencies under the direction of the governor's office to verify the employment eligibility of all new employees by using E-Verify.
Christopher Emmanuel, Florida Chamber of Commerce director of infrastructure & governance policy, told the committee Tuesday the issue should be left to the Legislature and that his organization has a problem with putting federal programs into the state Constitution.
“I could only find one federal program that's mentioned in our foundational document and that's Medicaid, (and) that's a pretty significant portion of our state's budget,” Emmanuel said.
Required in at least 20 states, E-Verify is an internet-based system for employers to check the eligibility of employees to work in the U.S. The system is used by more than 700,000 employers.
If Newsome's proposal is put on the November 2018 ballot and approved by 60 percent of voters, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation would have to oversee the use of the federal program by any employer seeking a license to operate in Florida starting July 1, 2020.
Intentionally failing to use the program after that date would result in an automatic suspension of all licenses until compliance is met and fines of up to $1,000 per investigation are paid.
An employer found hiring at least five or more “unauthorized aliens,” would have all licenses suspended for seven to 30 days. The fines would grow on subsequent violations.
The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, has the power to directly place proposed constitutional amendments on the 2018 general-election ballot.
The E-Verify proposal is one of dozens being considered by the commission. The E-Verify proposal must get approval from the Executive Committee before it reaches the entire commission.