TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — As the legislative session dwindles to its final weeks, Florida House members are set Thursday to consider for the first-time a contentious proposal that would mandate employers do immigration checks on new workers.

The push to implement E-Verify, a federal system designed to confirm workers’ legal eligibility, has proven to be a whirlwind legislative effort as Gov. Ron DeSantis makes the issue a top priority.

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Many Republicans who support E-Verify want to see a blanket mandate for private and public employers in an effort to block undocumented immigrants from entering the workforce.

But so far, the Republican-dominated Legislature is considering proposals that include exemptions for businesses.

A new version of a House bill (HB 1265), which will be considered Thursday by the House Commerce Committee, would require employers that want to benefit from taxpayer-funded incentives to use E-Verify.

The bill would give other private businesses the option to collect copies of documents that applicants use to fill out what is known as a form I-9, which is used by the federal government to verify the identity and employment eligibility of workers.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, said he will support the bill on Thursday to keep it moving. But he said he was “appalled” to see Republicans tone down the proposal by including private-employer exemptions.

“I personally wouldn’t use the word ‘gut’ because it takes away the purpose and the force of the bill, but it definitely damages the bill and limits the bill’s significance, which I disapprove of,” Sabatini said in a phone interview Wednesday.

A Senate proposal also would give private employers an alternative to E-Verify. The Senate bill would offer businesses the option to use a “substantially equivalent” system to E-Verify if businesses certify that they have effective employment verification systems in place.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican sponsoring the bill (SB 664), said he was forced to add the private employer exemption to the Senate bill as a compromise. But he said the exemption provision “guts” the bill.

If the provision remains in the final version, Lee said he would ask the governor to veto the bill.

But DeSantis is eager to sign an E-Verify mandate into law this year, as President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is in full swing.

A win on E-Verify would allow the governor to deliver on immigration, a popular issue among the GOP base, and he would be able to keep a promise he made to supporters during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

The private employer exemptions in the House and Senate bills could serve as a compromise that would defuse anger from business lobbies that are some of the state’s biggest political donors.

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Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said the Republican-on-Republican fight playing out over E-Verify is “what happens when you have two masters.”

“They have to keep their anti-immigrant base happy and not upset the big business lobby so the campaign checks continue to flow in once session ends,” Jenne told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

While the House and Senate would offer relief to businesses, the measures differ in a number of areas.

The House proposal, for example, would require all employers to use E-Verify if they apply for state-funded economic-development incentives from the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is part of DeSantis’ administration. Some of the state’s largest employers get money or tax breaks through the state’s maze of economic development programs.

The House bill would require the department to determine whether private and public employers who apply for incentive programs are complying with the E-Verify mandate. The measure also would give employers a right to appeal the state agency’s decisions.

“On a final determination of non-compliance, the awardee must repay all monies received as an economic development incentive to the department within 30 days of the final determination,” the bill says.

The Senate bill would propose phasing in the requirement for employers to use a verification system. The mandate would first start in July 2021 for employers with at least 500 workers and would apply to employers with at least 20 workers starting in January 2022.

With the legislative session slated to end March 13, supporters of E-Verify say there is still plenty of time to revise the proposal.

“The bill is alive, and we will get more opportunities to make it even better,” Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said in an interview last week.

In the House, Sabatini said it is “definitely a possibility” that amendments could be considered as early as Thursday, when the Commerce Committee takes up the bill.

But that remains to be seen.

“I have not heard about nor do I expect any amendment before Thursday,” bill sponsor Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, told the News Service in a text message Wednesday.

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