State Politics

Florida lawmakers pitch tough reforms targeting undocumented migrants

People rally for comprehensive immigration reform outside the White House in November 2014.
People rally for comprehensive immigration reform outside the White House in November 2014. AP

Republican lawmakers want deported migrants who return to Florida to be felons under state law in the first of several bills pushing back against illegal immigration.

A proposal by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, would make a new third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, for any person who has been ordered deported by a federal judge and later re-enters Florida.

Trujillo and Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, say the bill is needed because the federal government isn’t doing enough to secure the country’s borders and to protect public safety.

“We certainly need to protect our citizens that are law-abiding, and we want to protect them from violent illegals,” Hutson told reporters Tuesday.

The House Civil Justice subcommittee approved the bill (HB 9) Wednesday with nine Republicans in favor and four Democrats opposed.

Critics say the bill is unnecessary.

“First and foremost, this is preempted by federal law,” said Francesca Menes of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “The state does not have any authority to address immigration law.”

Creating a new felony for undocumented immigrants is just the first part of a broader effort in the Legislature to target illegal immigration. Five Republican lawmakers have proposed a package of bills they say will counteract lax border control by the federal government.

“I love the idea of a wall,” Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said Tuesday, pitching the initiative in the Capitol. “A wall would be a good place to start.”

But the state isn’t responsible for border security.

As a result, the group of Republicans is focusing on policies they say Florida does have a role in by filing three bills to ramp up criminal penalties, ban so-called “sanctuary cities” and cut welfare benefits.

The hope is to discourage undocumented immigrants from settling in Florida.

“I think individuals who unlawfully re-enter the United States after being forcibly removed would probably not decide to locate themselves in Florida,” Trujillo said.

The debate in the Capitol comes as the Republican presidential primary has put increased attention on immigration.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio both took stands against “sanctuary cities” in which local governments don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration officials. Miami-Dade County is often considered one such place.

State lawmakers are entering that fray with a bill (HB 675) to prohibit policies that stand in the way of immigration officials. And they want to take it a step further, allowing fines of up to $5,000 per day for the officials responsible for those policies.

A third proposal (HB 563, SB 750) would limit state assistance to low-income families that include an undocumented immigrant.

Right now, just a portion of an undocumented family member’s wages is used to calculate state assistance. But under the bill, all their income would be counted, lowering the state’s payout and raising the odds that the whole family would become ineligible for welfare programs.

Jose Manuel Godinez Samperio, an attorney from Largo spoke out against the criminal penalties Wednesday. However, he pointed to other immigration laws passed in the state that he sees more positively.

“Florida is grappling with its identity,” Godinez Samperio said. “I have seen some pro-immigrant bills passed, including my own that allowed me to become a member of the Florida Bar.”

A law passed in 2014 allowed him to become the first undocumented immigrant permitted to practice law in the state. Godinez Samperio said immigrants such as himself contribute to Florida’s economy and society..

“And I know there are many people who would like to contribute,” he said, “but are prohibited from doing so because of the way that laws are written.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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