With Florida the biggest swing state presidential battleground, Gov. Ron DeSantis is trying to bolster President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant themes. But he’s facing a challenge from a surprising force: Republican allies.
TALLAHASSEE — Ron DeSantis is facing his toughest test as governor from fellow Republicans on an issue that should be an easy sell with GOP voters — cracking down on illegal immigration.
But DeSantis’ push to force all Florida businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to determine the legal status of new hires is on shaky ground as the Legislature enters its closing weeks in this presidential election year.
Florida’s biggest businesses — including the agriculture, tourism and construction industries — oppose E-Verify, decrying it as an added regulation but fearing it as a potential threat to their workforce, which often includes undocumented workers.
Critics say the focus should be on the federal government and its failure to craft workable immigration standards. But supporters of E-Verify say it’s time for Florida businesses to do their part.
“It’s a mystery why this is so hard for people to support,” said Amapola Hansberger, who leads an organization, Legal Immigrants For America, based in Winter Springs.
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“E-Verify will help assure that jobs in this state are going to people who are legally here. Why do we want to keep making our workers compete with people not legal to work here?” said Hansberger, a native of Nicaragua who has been in the U.S. more than 50 years.
With Donald Trump vilifying illegal immigration in his re-election campaign, DeSantis appears eager to bolster the president in the nation’s biggest battleground state.
But Florida’s big businesses, which pour millions of dollars into the political campaigns of legislative Republicans, is muddying the governor’s plan.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, called E-Verify a “complicated matter.”
“I’m open to the idea of something passing that does not become an over-burden for businesses and helps to accomplish what I think the governor would like to accomplish,” Oliva said. “How exactly we do that, we’ve not yet determined.”
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee scaled-back DeSantis’ idea. It exempted the agriculture industry from a proposal (SB 664) that would force most other Florida businesses, except for those with fewer than 10 employees, to use E-Verify by 2022.
But on Tuesday, another Senate panel, Commerce and Tourism, chaired by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, is expected to eliminate that carve-out for farmers — bringing the legislation back closer to what the governor sought.
“With the governor as strong as he is and committed to pass an E-verify law, I’m pretty confident we’re going to get something over the finish line,” said Gruters, who doubles as Florida Republican Party chair and a former co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Florida.
“I think it’s going to be substantial,” Gruters predicted about whatever emerges as a final package before lawmakers.
Still, election-year politics has layered DeSantis’ proposal from the beginning. Some have even questioned whether DeSantis is floating an idea he knows will be rejected by lawmakers — but which can still boost his and the president’s standing with voters.
“I’m a ‘build the wall’ guy,” said Andy Dubois, who leads a Tea Party group in Lake County. “But I applaud Gov. DeSantis for doing something on immigration.”
DeSantis last November reaffirmed his commitment to imposing E-Verify on Florida businesses on a visit to The Villages, the Central Florida retirement community that is a favorite stop for Republican candidates and leaders.
The appearance came the day before DeSantis joined Trump for a rally in Broward County.
“I believe, and the vast majority of people in our state believe, that businesses should be hiring Americans, should be hiring legal immigrants, but not hire illegally cheap, foreign labor,” DeSantis told The Villages crowd.
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DeSantis vowed that he’d sign E-Verify legislation while waging his 2018 Republican primary campaign against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who he ridiculed as being in the pocket of farming interests.
DeSantis said Putnam wouldn’t do that, “because his Big Ag donors that fund his campaign want that cheap foreign labor.”
But last year, during his first legislative session as governor, DeSantis limited his immigration efforts to successfully getting lawmakers to enact a ban on so-called sanctuary cities.
That measure, fought by immigrant advocacy organizations, requires Florida police and sheriff’s departments to comply with detainer requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and hold immigrants living illegally in the U.S., if they are arrested for other crimes.
E-Verify so far hasn’t drawn the emotional demonstrations at the Capitol which marked last year’s sanctuary cities clash.
But some of the same religious and social service organizations which opposed that ban are now speaking out against E-Verify, warning it will lead to more discrimination against all foreign workers in this state.
It’s creating a coalition of opposition across the political spectrum — from establishment business groups to workers advocates.
DeSantis is trying to out-do his predecessor as governor, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who also came into office talking tough on immigration and pushing to use E-Verify. But Scott was forced to limit its use to state government agencies and contractors in the face of stiff opposition from Florida businesses.
Twenty-four states, including Florida, currently require E-Verify’s use by at least some government employers, but only eight states require it for all businesses. Most states with the broader standard are in the Southeast, which DeSantis said makes Florida an outlier.
E-Verify is seen as discouraging many undocumented workers from entering Florida. But critics question whether it will make a significant difference, with federal surveys having shown that in some states, many employers dodge the system and that it’s easy for workers to obtain fake identification to avoid detection by the database.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, sponsor of the E-Verify bill, said requiring most Florida businesses to use E-Verify is worthwhile. And it will change at least part of the state’s economy.
“The supply of labor being created by this black market, if you will, of undocumented workers is suppressing wages for other people in this state,” Lee said. “I think we need to bring that out of the shadows. This bill is not really that complicated.”