TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Rick Scott, who said while campaigning for governor that he would require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check immigration status, now acknowledges that requiring the agriculture industry to use it would put growers at a disadvantage.
Scott said this week while addressing a gathering of the state's largest citrus growers group, Florida Citrus Mutual, that he wouldn't support any effort to require use of the system in the upcoming legislative year. Lawmakers have considered requiring its use, but failed to pass legislation the last two years.
Scott, who was elected in 2010, campaigned on a strong anti-illegal immigration platform that included this promise on his campaign web site: "Rick will require all Florida employers to use the free E-Verify system to ensure that their workers are legal."
But that position put him between two typically-strong GOP constituencies: the tea party voters often credited with getting him elected, who generally support most efforts to reduce use of foreign workers, and the business community, which has said E-Verify is problematic, especially when employers in some competing states aren't required to use it.
Scott acknowledged this week that on this issue, he's come to agree with the agriculture industry.
"It would be foolish to put Florida companies at a disadvantage," Scott told those at the Citrus Mutual meeting in Bonita Springs on Wednesday, according to a story in The Ledger of Lakeland.
Scott also told the growers group that he knows of no serious effort to revive legislation containing an E-Verify requirement, and wouldn't support it, reiterating that it is the federal government's responsibility to do something about the immigration problem.
Scott signed an executive order shortly after taking office requiring that new hires in state agencies and those who contract with them be checked by E-Verify. That requirement remains in place.
But after being unable to persuade the Republican Legislature to pass the requirement in his first legislative session, and running into push back from big business, Scott's thinking has become more practical and nuanced. Even as lawmakers were considering the requirement in 2011, Scott said checking new state workers' immigration status might be far enough.
"One of my executive orders was that all state agencies would use E-Verify. And right now I’m satisfied with that," the governor said back in January, 2011, although at the time a spokeswoman said "right now" was the key part of the phrase and warned that the governor could push for broader application of the requirement later.
But tea party voters and others who want stronger immigration controls have already made their dissatisfaction with Scott on the issue known, very publicly.
A group called Floridians for Immigration Enforcement put up a billboard earlier this year on Interstate 75 "welcoming" illegal immigrants to the state and thanking Scott.
"This is a wake-up call for Gov. Scott, who promised Floridians he would work to get mandatory E-Verify in the state to protect our legal workers," Jack Oliver, the group's legislative director, said at the time.
The E-Verify system uses a federal Homeland Security database and Social Security records to check whether people are legally allowed to work in the United States. More than a dozen other states, including neighboring Alabama and Georgia, have some sort of requirement for at least some employers to use the E-Verify system. Nearly 20,000 employers in Florida, including local governments and many private employers, use the system even though not required to.
Citrus Mutual, the group the governor was addressing, and other agriculture groups opposed Florida legislation in 2011 that would have required it, and were widely credited with helping kill it. A similar measure was filed this year but went nowhere.
In a recent editorial published by Florida Voices, Jim Spratt of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, said bills passed in Alabama and Georgia had cost growers heavily there because of a resulting labor shortage.
"Agricultural employers stand to lose as much as 75 percent of their current workforce if mandatory E-Verify laws are enacted without simultaneously enacting a guest-worker program," Spratt wrote. "Crippling Florida’s agricultural industry should scare every Floridian, as Florida provides the lion’s share of our nation’s winter vegetables, Florida produces nearly 75 percent of all the indoor tropical foliage and houseplants sold within the U.S., and Florida is known the world over for its citrus production, both juice and fresh fruit."