EVerify immigration law generates no complaints in Florida

Private employers in Florida have been required to use E-Verify, a federal system for verifying the legal status of a prospective hire, since the beginning of the year. But in the five and a half months it has been in place, no complaints have been filed with the state enforcement agency.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) told the Orlando Sentinel that there have been no complaints against any employers since the provisions affecting private businesses went into effect on 1 January.

The lack of tangible enforcement of the new law has generated criticism from those seeking more aggressive measures to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not hired.

"It's a bill to make it look like we passed EVerify in the state of Florida," said Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills.

Governor Ron DeSantis pushed his fellow Republicans in charge of the Legislature to pass the bill last year and included it as a top priority, arguing that it would help exclude undocumented immigrants from the workforce and help generate wage increases for low-wage workers.

"Low-income workers should also not be depressed by cheap foreign labour," DeSantis said in his 2020 State of the State address. "Securing a legal workforce through E-Verify will be good for the rule of law, protect taxpayers and put upward pressure on the wages of Floridians working in blue-collar jobs."

A spokeswoman for DeSantis did not respond to an email seeking comment Friday.

But the law passed by the Legislature has little teeth and imposes few requirements on private companies.

The bill, SB 664, requires state and local governments and their contractors and subcontractors to use EVerify, something that was already required for state agencies under an earlier executive order issued by DeSantis' predecessor, Rick Scott. Scott, however, did not pass an EVerify bill during his eight years in office.

Private employers were required to use EVerify under the law or use an I-9 document used by federal immigration authorities to determine immigration status. The documents must be kept on file for three years for any hiring after 1 January.

But while an earlier version of the bill would have allowed the DEO to randomly audit companies for compliance and impose $500 fines, it was watered down before it was passed due to pressure from groups representing big business interests.

DEO can only require a non-compliant employer to sign an affidavit stating that it will use EVerify in the future or retain employment eligibility documents. If an employer fails to sign an affidavit within 30 days of the DEO's request, only then can it remove the appropriate business licence that allows the business to operate.

But DEO has not been involved in any such enforcement action because it has not received a complaint.

For Sabatini, that statistic does not show that everyone is following the law - a 2016 Pew Research study estimated there were 775,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida - but rather how weak the enforcement provisions are. The official introduced a bill this year to remove the option for private employers to use the I-9 document instead of EVerify, but it did not receive a hearing.

"It was a bogus bill and a kind of stain on the Republican legislature," Sabatini said.

The lack of EVerify complaints comes despite a spate of hiring by businesses since the beginning of the year as the economy continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. From the beginning of the year through April, Florida added nearly 77,000 jobs.

In fact, Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson wrote to members this week that Florida faces a "workforce crisis" because there are more open jobs (512,900) than job seekers (487,000).

Business lobbyists, however, have not pointed to EVerify or onerous regulations as the reason for the difficulty in finding workers, but blame the $300 federal supplement to weekly unemployment benefits. DeSantis has said Florida will phase out the supplemental payments on June 26.

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