Florida doesn't have an Arizona-style immigration law yet, but mention the possibility and you'll hear a lot of anxious sighs.
Business owners, economic experts and tourist officials say measures before the Florida Legislature might taint the state's image, dampen tourism, complicate hiring and further strain businesses. Meanwhile, anti-immigration groups argue that immigrants place a huge financial burden on federal and state services.
The proposals would allow law enforcement to ask about peoples' legal status and turn them over to federal authorities if they were in the country illegally. The proposals would also increase punishments for employers who hire undocumented workers. One bill was introduced by Rep. Bill Snyder, R-Stuart, in the state House of Representatives and the other by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, in the state Senate.
"It would basically eliminate the tomato industry from the state," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
Tomatoes, the state's biggest vegetable commodity, annually bring in about half a billion dollars, Brown said. If Florida didn't grow tomatoes, the U.S. would have to import them much of the year -- mostly from Mexico.
In Florida and throughout the United States, immigrants are most prevalent in labor markets for agriculture, construction, grounds keeping and maintenance, and service businesses including hotels and restaurants, said Robert Emerson, a retired professor with the food and resource economics department at University of Florida.
About half of the agricultural workers say they're undocumented, he pointed out, citing the National Agricultural Workers Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Undocumented workers made up 5.8 percent of Florida's total labor force in 2009, down from 8.2 percent the previous year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Anything that decreases the number of available workers may increase employers' hiring costs, Emerson said.
Verifying legal status is another challenge for employers, Emerson said.
"If the worker presents a document that gives all appearance of being a legal document, the employer is often in a difficult position to challenge that document," he said. "But ... if it turns out that the worker is illegal, he is subject to fines and penalties."
A law that made it easier to tell who is legal and who is not might ease that problem, Emerson said. But he said he was uncertain whether E-Verify -- a government website designed to help businesses look up that information -- will help.
"If the population of workers was diminished as a result of that law, of course it would hurt us," said Forrest Taylor, president of the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscapers Association's Royal Palm Chapter. "You wouldn't have the pool of potential employees to hire from."
Horticultural enterprises are different from large vegetable farms in that their workers are mostly permanent employees, rather than day laborers, Taylor said.
Enticing people from different economic sectors to work in agriculture would probably cost significantly more, Taylor said.
"We rely on immigrant workers," said Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida history professor. "You're not going to get people in the Facebook generation to go out and pick tomatoes."
Other experts worry about potential harm to Florida's tourism and convention industries.
"It's bad ideology, bad for the economy and, I believe, bad policy for Florida," said Hank Fishkind, principle of Fishkind & Associates Inc., an economic and financial consulting firm.
"It will have an indirect effect of spoiling the state's reputation. Do we really want that for Florida?"