Immigration

After grueling, two-day debate, House passes ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ in Florida

Florida Immigrant Coalition opposes anti-sanctuary city bill

Members of Florida's immigrant population express their disappointment after a Senate Judiciary Committee voted on a bill that would prohibit “sanctuary cities” and require state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S.
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Members of Florida's immigrant population express their disappointment after a Senate Judiciary Committee voted on a bill that would prohibit “sanctuary cities” and require state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S.

After an exhaustive two-day debate on a bill that would ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” the Florida House passed the proposal 69-47.

The bill will create rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Local law enforcement will be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law.

The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.

House Democrats spent nearly two hours Tuesday night questioning the bill, and spent another hour presenting the first batch of more than three dozen amendments, which addressed topics ranging from witness and victim protection, reimbursement of costs and exemptions for people who applied for refugee status.

In the prelude to this final stop on the House floor, the arguments surrounding the bill have erupted into protests at the Capitol, sit-ins at district offices and even an ACLU-issued travel warning for travelers and non-citizens to stay away from Florida. Both immigrant families and “angel families,” whose children were killed due to crimes involving undocumented immigrants, have given emotional testimony at bill hearings, and each time the bills were heard, committee rooms filled to capacity.

Immigrants, advocates and some faith leaders said the legislation would erode trust in law enforcement and hurt the economy to the tune of $3.5 billion in GDP, according to the American Business and Immigration Coalition. More than 120 business leaders have signed a letter urging lawmakers to stop SB 168 and HB 527.

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina has also rejected the proposals. Last month he said in an interview on Actualidad Radio 1040 AM, “The truth is I’d prefer not to have this job if I have to ask fellow officers to go check where someone came from before helping them.”

Republicans on the floor told stories about their own immigration stories, like Palm Bay Rep. Randy Fine’s legislative aide who spent five years trying to come to America from Russia, or Land O’Lakes Rep. Ardian Zika, who fled ethnic discrimination in Kosovo. They said a vote against the bill is disrespectful to the people who came to America legally.

Neptune Beach Republican Cord Byrd, the bill’s sponsor, said his only goal is to ensure that all 67 counties in Florida follow what he calls “the rule of law” to ensure legal immigration.

“We are more than just a job center. We are a nation of citizens governed by law,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to respect our laws, regardless of the reasons they choose to come.”

In his closing on the bill Byrd talked about his upbringing in Miami, where he heard immigrant stories from the children he went to school with. He called debate among Democrats “demagoguery,” and said the House deserves better debate.

“At some point, the law discredits itself. It discredits itself when we don’t follow it,” he said. “I don’t think you need to be an immigrant to understand immigrant stories.”

Sen. Joe Gruters talks about his bill SB 168 to ban sanctuary cities in Florida on March 12, 2019.

While there is no such thing as a sanctuary city in Florida, the bill would put a definition of “sanctuary city” into law. The bill builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. The proposal also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place.

The topic of Venezuela and those seeking asylum from the Nicolás Maduro regime became a theme throughout the debate, with Democrats urging Republicans to think of Venezuelan immigrants who live in communities they serve, like Miami-Dade County.

Republican Sen. Manny Díaz Jr., of Miami has made a resolution to stand in solidarity with Venezuelans, and Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela last week, taking a stance against Maduro.

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“The only time you stand up for the people in Venezuela is when it’s convenient for a press conference,” said Rep. Cindy Polo, of Miami, who later gave a tear-filled speech about her Colombian immigrant parents and what immigrants sacrifice when coming to America.

“We don’t all get here the same way,” she said. “We are not treated the same. Some of our stories are similar, but some of our stories are different. It doesn’t make any one of those stories invalid. I have promised to speak for the most vulnerable and to stand up for the ones who don’t have a voice. “

Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith also spoke about Venezuela on the floor, asking the majority in the chamber to consider what the Democrats “in the back of the room” have to say about communities Miami Republicans serve.

“This bill escalates deportations of all undocumented immigrants, including those who have not been convicted of violent felonies or serious crimes. It also escalates deportations of Venezuelans seeking asylum from Maduro,” Smith said earlier Tuesday. “Aren’t Republicans trying to help Venezuelans? What gigantic hypocrites.”

Smith filed a few amendments, including one that alters the definition of “state entities” to narrow the scope and taking schools and state employees out of it. Currently, state colleges, universities and other employees would be responsible for showing “best efforts” to cooperate with ICE.

“This legislation is dangerously broad,” Smith said. “Being a snitch for ICE is not their job.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, however, has said complying with ICE is part of the job.

In 2018, he spearheaded a proposal that would allow local law enforcement to keep undocumented immigrants in jail once their charges are resolved until ICE came to pick them up. He said opponents to the bill are “misinformed” and that Pinellas County has been practicing this kind of behavior for years.

“No one’s suing us because we are doing it lawfully,” he said last month.

Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani filed amendments that exempt victims and witnesses of crime from being required to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution, as well as people within the state college and university system.

“It’s personal for me,” said Eskamani, whose parents were Iranian immigrants. “This effort would push people into the shadows. … There are situations where there are citizens who are exploiting the undocumented.”

Eskamani cited a recent instance in Miami-Dade County, where a crime victim who was cooperating with police in an open investigation was detained by ICE and nearly deported to her native Nicaragua.

The 38-year-old mother of three was detained for two months released on bond this past Tuesday. In an interview with The Miami New Times, she said other undocumented immigrants should be “very careful” about interacting with police. When asked if she would think twice before calling police, she responded “Sí.

Rep. Javier Fernandez, of South Miami, filed an amendment that would require that the state to reimburse law enforcement for the costs associated with detaining people and complying with requests in the case that the federal government fails to reimburse the full costs within two months.

Another House freshman, Rep. Dotie Joseph, filed an amendment to require the state to study the fiscal impact on every affected agency and entity, including local governments, tourism and agriculture. The study would have to be finished by 2021, and would have to be shared with legislative leadership.

She says she hopes Republican legislators will “take a pause” and evaluate the impact this legislation will have on local governments and a tourist-driven economy.

Her amendment establishes an automatic repeal, or a sunset on the bill, which can be saved by future legislative review of the study to be completed by 2021. One day in jail costs the state anywhere between $64 to nearly $850 per day, but under most basic ordering agreements with ICE, counties receive only $50 for up to 48 hours of jail time.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s us — the local taxpayers and not the federal government — who will be footing this ridiculous bill for something we do not want,” said Joseph, of Miami. “But if HB 527 passes, the message the GOP Majority will be sending to communities like mine that do not want this anti-immigrant legislation is clear: The will of the people be damned, and let’s shake down taxpayers while we’re at it.”

Carlos Curbelo, a former Miami congressman and child of Cuban refugees, said that to him, Florida has long been known as a state where immigrants are welcome.

“It’s a state where the American Dream is possible,” said Curbelo, a Republican. “It is these values that have helped make Florida a place I am proud to call home.”

Curbelo added that his former colleagues in Congress should be the ones to fix what he called a broken system.

“Ultimately, we need Congress to pass sensible immigration reform,” he said. “That is the only sustainable solution to our broken immigration system.”

The House has tried to pass a similar ”sanctuary cities” bill for the past four years. Last year, the Senate version never made it to the floor.

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Bill sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, who serves as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has made the issue his top priority this legislative session, and said Tuesday that he’s determined to make the bill become law this year.

“I’m glad to be the catalyst to help this happen,” Gruters said. “And we have Ron DeSantis, our governor, who has made this a priority. That’s why this is moving forward.”

The Senate proposal does not include penalties but gives the attorney general authority to bring civil actions against municipalities that do not cooperate.

Senate Democrats have taken a caucus position against twin bill SB 168. Only one Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, has come out against the proposal in the Senate. That version of the bill will be heard on the floor Thursday. The legislative session ends May 3.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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