Expecting large crowds, ‘sanctuary city’ bill signing switched Panhandle venues

A brief history of the sanctuary movement in the United States

Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.
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Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.

The bill signing for a piece of legislation to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida has generated quite a bit of public interest.

So much so, that Okaloosa County had to find a bigger room.

The bill, set to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis Friday, is expected to draw one of the largest crowds the Okaloosa County Commission has ever had, according to spokesman Christopher Saul.

The piece of legislation was originally set to be signed at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, but as of Wednesday night the signing was moved to the county’s commission chambers in Shalimar to accommodate more spectators. The sheriff’s office can only hold around 100 people, while the chamber can fit eight times that.

The controversial bill’s signing comes after months and months of heightened emotional discourse, protests and deals made among stakeholders wishing to appease the Republican base.

Under the bill, local law enforcement and other state agencies are 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.

Congressman Matt Gaetz, who represents the county and is a key adviser of the governor, is co-hosting the event. Gaetz said the governor is a “rising star,” and that his constituents are turning out to see him more than anything.

“Ron DeSantis has a big draw in the Florida Panhandle,” Gaetz said. “These are folks who turned out to vote for him. He’s an exciting political figure on the rise.”

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The event’s RSVP website didn’t say what the announcement would be, but Gaetz said the idea of banning sanctuary cities will go over well with his overwhelmingly Republican district.

Within a few hours of the page going up, 700 people registered for the free event, he said.

“It will be very favorable,” Gaetz said. “The governor ran pretty hard on immigration in the primary and into the general election. This issue of sanctuary policies is front and center in the governor’s race.”

State Senator and bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said the bill signing will be historic, calling it the “strongest ban on sanctuary cities in the entire country.”

DeSantis, who campaigned on banning sanctuary cities as a hard-line Republican priority, pushed hard for legislation all session. Banning “sanctuary cities” not only was a campaign promise but a key talking point in his inaugural address and State of the State speech. Gaetz said they talked almost every weekend as DeSantis weighed the best ways to ensure the bill’s passage, and that DeSantis met with lawmakers frequently to “make it happen.”

Gruters, who doubles as the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, credited DeSantis for the momentum behind his legislation, a version of which passed in the House last year, but died in the Senate.

“I think it’s natural to have a huge turnout when you talk about the rule of law, and making sure local government officials follow the law,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the demographic you’re in … this is to help out all Americans.”

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Okaloosa County has a population of 180,000. Just 12,296, or 6%, are Hispanic or Latino — the populations most likely to be affected by the new rule.

Gruters said the bill signing was happening in Okaloosa because of Gaetz’s constituents, instead of somewhere else like Pinellas County. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri played a pivotal rule in crafting and carrying out the legislation.

“I’m going to tell everyone that this is an example of how [Washington] D.C. is failing,” Gruters said, referring to the lack of federal legislation pertaining to immigration enforcement. “Gaetz is a bright spot. That’s why we have him coming.”

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.