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Florida Immigration Bill Appears Dead For 2011

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A vast difference between House and Senate versions of a Florida immigration bill means it is likely the issue is dead for the 2011 legislative session, according to the Florida House sponsor of the bill.

The Senate’s rejected a tougher House immigration proposal 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.

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.”

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