[UPDATE] Senate Passes Watered-down Immigration Measure

By: Michael Peltier and David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier and David Royse, The News Service of Florida

[UPDATE] 5-4 1:45pm - TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

A watered-down immigration measure that would require one-stop career work centers to verify the employment eligibility of workers has passed in the Florida Senate.

However, final passage remains elusive with just two days left
in the session.

The Senate passed its version (SB 2040) on a 23-15 vote
Wednesday, but it doesn't contain a requirement that employers
check new hires against a federal database. The Senate also
disagrees with another House desire to authorize local police to
check out the immigration status of anyone under investigation,
even if the individual has never been arrested. It would also allow
officers to check the immigration status whenever they suspect
someone is in the country illegally.

An Arizona-style immigration bill had the strong backing of Gov.
Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

________________________________

Tallahassee, FL - The Senate’s rejection of a tougher House immigration proposal likely dooms the measure for the year , the House sponsor said Tuesday, with lawmakers unable to agree on an issue that split the Republican Party like few others.

After a long, emotional debate on Tuesday, the Senate advanced an immigration bill that does not penalize businesses for hiring undocumented workers and sets a higher standard than the proposed House bill before police can check an immigrant’s status.

With bills so dramatically different and the legislative session scheduled to end Friday, Rep. Will Snyder said it would be almost impossible to get the 80 votes needed procedurally to get the measure through the House at this late date.

“We had a majority for my bill,” said Snyder, R-Stuart, expressing disappointment that the measure is likely dead until next year. “The people of Florida expected we would do something about it.”

Senators may still vote Wednesday on the bill, which backers said was forced on Florida by a lack of action in Washington. The measure fell short of Arizona-style restrictions now tied up in court, but was still a flash point in the last week, with a near-constant protest from immigrants and immigrant rights group at the Capitol.

“Where we stand here today is caused by an absolute failure of our federal government to come to terms with a fair, equitable and reasonable way to handle these issues,” said Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a farmer, who was handed sponsorship of the bill late in the session.

But the Legislature appeared unlikely to be able to come up with a fair way to do it either. The measure pulled the GOP three ways. Many Hispanics in the Legislature – most of them Republican – were uncomfortable with some elements of the proposal. But it was pushed by the populist wing of the Republican Party, including tea party backers, who have made immigration one of their top issues.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the debate came from a third Republican constituency, big business – and particularly the agriculture industry – which expressed concerns about the impact of the message that a crack down on immigrants would send in a tourism-dependent state, and the effect on the state’s workforce.

Tuesday’s debate underscored the difficulty Florida officials face in crafting immigration policy. The state’s tourism, agricultural and construction industry are dependent upon immigrant labor –both legal and illegal – to take jobs that U.S. citizens won’t fill.

Following more than two hours of debate on Tuesday, the Senate rejected on a 16-23 vote, a proposal that would have forced businesses to use the federal E-verify system to check immigration status, or face the possibility of fines up to $1,500 for per violation for employing workers who are in the country illegally. Backers said the amendment was essential to ensure that only those legally in the country are being hired. The House had wanted a requirement for immigration checks on all new hires.

“It gives employers some assurance that they are doing the right thing, that they are actually employing the right kind of people that are legal in our state,” said Sen. John Thrasher. R-St. Augustine. “In fact, the taxpayers of our state expect us to have that debate and that type of discussion.”

But the Senate approved a measure that would require only those seeking a job through the state workforce agency, or people getting local or state benefits to be screened using E-verify.

The Senate proposal (SB 2040) would require law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of suspects once they’ve been arrested and are in custody. Upon conviction, the state could deport offenders found to be in the United States illegally. But the Senate measure also says the law couldn’t be construed to “authorize the arrest of a person on suspicion that the person is not in the United States lawfully.”

The House measure (HB 7089) would allow law enforcement officers to seek the immigration status of suspects in criminal investigations. The bill also would sanction employers who do not use the E-verify system and hire undocumented workers.

On Tuesday, immigrants in the Senate spoke against taking a hard line on the issue. Florida’s recent history is replete with examples of immigrants who came and made a contribution, said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Sunny Isles.

“What is happening in this state?” said Margolis, 76, choking back tears. “In Dade County everyone speaks another language. You can’t get a job if you don’t speak another language. That’s the way it is. That’s the way we live. That’s where I grew up.”

Some also noted the business opposition.

“We shouldn’t be, on the 57th day of session, making it harder for people to create jobs,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R- St. Petersburg.

Backers said the state needs to make the tough choices to deal with a wave of immigration.

“The people of our country and the people of our state are asking for us to act,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne. “They’re asking for us to be partners with our federal government and take a strong, strong stand against illegal immigration.”

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he was glad the Senate had the debate even if the House may not take up the bill, and, while expressing frustration at the lack of federal enforcement of immigration laws, acknowledged the difficulty of the issue.

“I met a lot of these folks up here in Tallahassee,” said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, referring to the protesting immigrants who descended on the Capitol this week. “People are just looking for an opportunity…you blame them for wanting to live here?

“As Sen. Alexander described very well, a lot of Americans choose not to do the type of jobs he spoke about, being paid roughly $9 and in some cases back-breaking work where as other people might be willing to do that,” Haridopolos said.

Officials in House Speaker Dean Cannon’s office backed up Snyder’s assertion that the lateness in the session – and House rules meant to avoid taking up new measures quickly – would likely prevent the bill’s passage. The House won’t even get the Senate bill until sometime Wednesday.

But Alexander said the House could waive its rules, as it has done before.

"Maybe we can get that passed out, and they can always waive the rules if they really want to do it,” Alexander said. But, he said, going slowly isn’t the worst thing

"I'd rather get it right than move it quickly,.” Alexander said. “And if it takes more time to get it right and more time for our federal leaders to come to some sort of reasonable solution, then that may be what's best."


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