Fla. Republican leaders back away from immigration reform plans

Can Florida legislators turn their backs on immigration reform?

That is the question hovering over Republicans this week after Rick Perry’s performance in last week’s presidential debate and the results of the Florida straw poll, which show that being soft on the issue can imperil Republicans strapped to a primary.

Florida’s Tea Party activists say they will accept nothing short of requiring every employer to check the immigration status of their workers through the federal E-verify program in January when legislators convene in regular session. But armed with the support of Florida’s powerful agriculture and business groups, the same legislative leaders who last year promised Arizona-style immigration reform are now barely offering tentative support for it.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said his chamber is ready to revive a Senate bill, which gives police additional enforcement power. But the watered-down measure does not include E-verify and is too weak for many in the Tea Party.

Gov. Rick Scott, after requiring state agencies to use E-verify and campaigning for it to be implemented statewide, told the Herald/Times Thursday that his priority is not E-verify but to give law enforcement the ability to check the immigration status of people they stop.

"What we’re more interested in is making sure that if someone is in our state illegally and they’re doing something illegal that we’re able to ask them if they’re legal. That’s my priority," Scott said.

And House Speaker Dean Cannon, whose chamber proposed but never passed an Arizona-style immigration enforcement plan last year, said that immigration reform may take a back seat to balancing the budget, reapportionment and strengthening the economy.

“It may drop behind the others in terms of jobs and the economy,’’ Cannon said. “It’s just too soon to tell.”

The change of heart comes at the same time legislators are entering one of the most precarious election seasons in a decade. Because of reapportionment, every lawmaker must run in a newly-drawn district and, in some cases, answer to interest groups, ethnic groups and constituents they have not served before. The solution suggested by some Republican leaders is for the Legislature to do nothing now.

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