Republicans pushing hard-line anti-immigration measures in Legislature

Florida Immigrant Coalition
Immigration agents detain woman after searching bus. Photo by Florida Immigrant Coalition

With a national backdrop of anti-immigrant fervor whipped up by President Trump, Florida Republicans are intent on passing laws in the upcoming 2019 legislative session to crack down on undocumented immigrants. They’ve tried and failed to pass tougher laws before, but this year they think they’ll be successful, and Gov. Ron DeSantis is a supporter.

Democrats are vowing to fight against extreme proposals. They warn that one bill in particular would allow local law enforcement to become the immigration police, a responsibility that’s supposed to go to the federal government.

“We already have a huge problem with the police and community relations,” says state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat representing Broward County. “We don’t need to add on it.”

The proposal, which critics call the “show me your papers” legislation, would compel every single person arrested in Florida to prove that they are a U.S. citizen, or have the law enforcement agency that arrests them check with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to determine their legal status.

“There are a lot of things in here that would have a sweeping impact on every single level of government,” warns state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents Miami.

The measure also calls for ending so-called Florida “sanctuary” cities or counties – a term used for jurisdictions which refuse to cooperate with the federal government to target undocumented citizens. There aren’t any sanctuary cities identified in Florida, but Republicans want to outlaw the practice anyway.

The bill says that if someone is arrested and can’t provide proof within 48 hours of lawful presence in the U.S, the local law enforcement agency must contact the federal government to check immigration status. Agencies named in the legislation include municipal police departments, sheriff’s offices, state police departments, state university and college police departments, and the state Department of Corrections.

The sponsor of the bill in the Florida Senate, Sarasota Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters, says no one should have an issue with it.

“Call the sheriff’s department and ask them what the procedures are,” says Gruters, who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “They ask them where they live, what their occupation is, where they’re from.”

While twelve states allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license, Florida is not one of them. Thomas Kennedy, civic engagement coordinator for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says he has seen numerous cases in South Florida of undocumented people getting pulled over for a perceived traffic violation, with bad results ensuing.

“The officer can, and sometimes will, detain you and arrest you for driving without a license, and at that point it is very possible and it’s extremely likely that in a county that honors ‘detainer holds’ like Miami-Dade County, a detention hold will be placed on you for the simple act of driving without a license, and that can have horrible implications,” he says.

The bill expands upon an agreement that now exists between 34 Florida sheriff’s departments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And some attorneys say that’s a big problem.

“ICE detainers are notoriously unreliable,” says attorney Amien Kacou with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, pointing to the controversial arrest, detention, and near deportation of a U.S. resident last fall. The ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and a Southern California law firm are suing the Monroe County Sheriff over the incident.

The incident happened like this, according to the lawsuit : Peter Sean Brown, a 50-year-old Keys resident, turned himself in to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department on April 5, 2018 for a probation violation after he tested positive for marijuana. He expected a short stay at the Monroe County Detention Center until his probation violation was resolved.

But after the sheriff’s department sent his fingerprints to the FBI (as do all 34 counties which have an agreement with ICE), a form came back to the agency from an ICE agent asking the department to hold Brown another 48 hours so that ICE could send agents to pick him up and ultimately deport him to Jamaica – a country he was not born in and had visited only once.

Despite Brown repeatedly telling sheriff’s deputies that he was a U.S. citizen, no one believed him and they all refused to intervene on his behalf. He stayed at the Monroe County jail for 21 days. ICE agents then picked him up and transferred him to the Krome federal detention center in Miami. A friend emailed Brown’s birth certificate to an ICE officer at Krome, and Brown was finally released.

In a separate case of mistaken identity, the ACLU of Florida is suing Miami-Dade County, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for detaining 19-year-old Garland Creedle in 2017. Creedle was jailed after police arrested him following a domestic dispute, but criminal charges were never filed against him in that case.  ICE incorrectly told Miami-Dade County officials that Creedle was undocumented, and he was detained overnight before being released.

Gruters presented his bill for the first time in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, where he removed a contentious section that would have imposed financial penalties on so-called “sanctuary” governments, and would have subjected any local official who voted for such policies to be suspended or removed from office by the governor.

Texas already has such a policy, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court  last year, that requires local officials to cooperate with ICE agents or risk jail time if they don’t.

Lake County Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who is co-sponsoring a companion bill in the Florida House, insists the immigration bill “should not be a controversial law.”

“Any elected official who refuses to (abide by the law) should face criminal sanctions,” Sabatini said. “When the sanctuary city movement continues to come to Florida as it does around the country, we’ll have laws in effect to prevent the creation of a sanctuary city which will be an extremely dangerous situation because it will essentially become a harbor for illegal immigrants.”

President Trump has repeatedly said that America’s illegal immigrants bring “tremendous amounts of crime,” but statistics prove otherwise.

According to a report released in October by Syracuse University, the majority of people ICE detains have never been convicted of a crime. Four out of five either had no record or committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation.

But the issue remains popular with the Republican Party’s base.

“We should not be encouraging or supporting people who could not even follow the law in coming to our country,” says Evan Power, who is chairman of the Republican Party in Florida’s capital county, Leon.

Democratic Senator Jose Javier-Rodriguez says the Gruters bill is “very complicated, but what it comes down to is basically the Republican effort to have their version of ‘The Wall.”

That may not be the best argument to counter the proposal, however, at least not in Florida.  While national surveys show support for Trump’s border wall idea is a political loser, that’s not the case here.

A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week shows that 55 percent of Floridians support a border wall, and 37 percent oppose it. Among independents, the margin is even greater, with 59 percent supporting the wall and 29 percent opposing it.

Thomas Kennedy of the Florida Immigrant Coalition says his group is working to organize allies to fight the immigration legislation, and plans to have supporters out in force when the bill comes up for discussion this afternoon.

“We’re calling on Republican allies and others to take a strong stand against it and kill it like they have in the past,” he said.

(UPDATE: The Gruters’ bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday on a party-line vote, 4-2).

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