Editor's note: This is the first story in a series examining the upcoming legislative session, several proposed immigration bills, and how they will affect business, law enforcement and the people who could face scrutiny.
SERIES: IMMIGRATION LAW
- Poll: Should law enforcement be able to check citizen status?
- Poll: Should Florida have an Arizona-style law cracking down on illegal immigrants?
- Photos: Faces of Immigration
- Photos: Standing up against immigration laws
- Video: Faces of Immigration - Modesta Velasco
- Story: Proposed bills to stir controversy about illegals
- Story: Husband faces deportation, family fights for American dream
- Gov. Scott sticking to campaign rhetoric supporting legislation
- Legislation could be catastrophic to agriculture businesses
- Facing deportation, man becomes face of protest against proposed legislation
- Non-profits hold out hope for no legislation
- Law enforcement says bills wouldn't change checking citizen status
- Click here to read more stories about the immigration issue »
Florida Sen. Mike Bennett doesn’t think Florida should deal with immigration laws. Neither does his colleague, state Rep. William Snyder.
But since Washington isn’t doing anything about immigration, both men are hoping to get in front of the debate here in Florida.
“Even though I filed that bill, I don’t think we should have it,” Bennett said. “I think it should be a federal (issue) not a state (issue).”
Seven bills focusing on a wide-range of immigration issues have been filed in advance of the 2011 legislative session, with Bennett’s Senate bill and Snyder’s House bill garnering the most attention. Both South Florida legislators’ bills make it a state crime for non-U.S. residents to fail to carry alien registration documents – like green cards, visas and passports – and require businesses to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires.
The 2011 legislative session begins on March 8 and lasts through April.
While Republican leaders spent much of the summer throwing their support behind a hardcore Arizona-style enforcement crackdown to Florida, that rhetoric has eased up in recent months. That comes as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and immigrant rights groups have called the bills unconstitutional, saying racial and ethnic profiling will be the primary means for law enforcement.
Despite opposition, Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Snyder, R-Stuart, say they are trying to push a debate on the issue.
“There’s going to be a lot of bad, sad stories as we deal with immigration,” Bennett said. “If we do something, there is going to be a price to pay.”
As the debate, and presumably the bills, move forward, legislative watchers believe Snyder’s bill – which was introduced last summer with the support of then-State Attorney General Bill McCollum – is expected to have the most traction as it moves through the process.
Bennett’s proposal, on the other hand, has been met with doubt from his colleagues. He too is hesitant to say whether he would support the bill in the end, because the issue should be handled at the federal level.
One reason for doubt, said Paul Ortiz, an immigration specialist at the University of Florida, is that the Senate bill is “incredibly vague.”
“The argument is that these types of laws, no matter what, would increase (racial profiling),” Ortiz said. “It doesn’t matter if race is not a standard here. We all know race is going to be perhaps the most important identifier here. But what does an undocumented person look like? That’s the crux of this.”
While there have been concerns that an Arizona-style law would increase racial or ethnic profiling, Eugene Milhizer, the dean of Ave Maria School of Law, said that likely won’t be a problem in Florida since the Senate bill prohibits profiling.
Milhizer, who reviewed the proposed Florida Senate bill in January, said Bennett’s bill appeared “to be similar to the Arizona law in the most important aspects.”
“I don’t see any Fourth Amendment problems here,” Milhizer said. “Of course the law might be subject to abuse, but this is true of all laws and the proposed Florida statute specifically prohibits racial profiling.”
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches of a person without a warrant.
Snyder has been tweaking his bill along the way. The recent holdup is whether language should require law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of people encountered during “lawful stops” or only during the course of a “criminal investigation.
Immigration in Florida in 2009
5.75 million: Number of immigrants that came to Florida
127,006: People who obtained permanent resident status
82,788: Persons naturalized
5.5 million: Non-U.S. citizens who visited for tourism, business, work
5,745:Identified by Homeland Security as deportable aliens
5.7 percent: Percent of Florida’s population considered unauthorized immigrants
8.2 percent: Percent of Florida’s work force considered unauthorized immigrants
Source: Florida Chamber, Pew Research Center
“The (legislative) system isn’t designed for anything to fly through. It’s designed for thoughtful mediation and thoughtful discussion and debate,” Snyder said. “I’m a big believer in letting the system work. I’ve done my part. I have fulfilled to this point what I said I would do, which was introduce a bill and walk it through the process.”
Wording the bill so that a status check is triggered during a criminal investigation would eliminate arguments that the bill would allow officers to simply demand papers from people doing everyday activities – like jogging or walking a dog – that don’t require a person to carry identification.
The ACLU of Florida doesn’t expect Snyder to alter the proposed language too much, and has vowed to challenge the bill.
“We haven’t seen anything in writing that will alleviate that concern for us,” said Danielle Prendergast, the director of public policy at the ACLU of Florida.
Bennett’s bill is meant to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens in this state,” and a status check is triggered if a person is lawfully stopped or arrested, and the law enforcement officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is an undocumented resident.
His bill also states that a person is presumed to be lawfully in the country if he or she can provide a Florida driver’s license or identification card, a tribal enrollment card or any other valid state or federal identification. But Bennett is the first to acknowledge the bill he filed last year “will not be the bill that comes out of the legislative process.”
Enforcing immigration laws was a rally cry for Florida Republicans throughout the summer, but support the rhetoric surrounding the need for legislation has tapered off.
Proposed Immigration Bills
Other bills regarding immigration for the 2011 legislative session
Senate Bill 318/House Bill 55
Allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Florida’s public universities.
Authors: Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando / Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Ridge, and Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderhill
Senate Bill 304/House Bill 205
Requires the state Department of Correction and Parole Commission to identify inmates that would be eligible for deportation upon their arrival at state institutions.
Authors: Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota / Rep. Ken Robertson, R-Port Charlotte
Senate Bill 136/House Bill 237
Prohibits the state from limiting the enforcement of immigration laws, requires a law enforcement officer to request citizenship information under certain circumstances and authorizes a law enforcement agency to transport an alien to a federal facility. Allows citizens to sue the state or a political subdivision for restricting the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Authors: Sens. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, Don Gaetz, R-Destin, and Jim Norman, R-Tampa / Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers
Senate Bill 230 / House Bill 271
Prohibits agencies from entering into a contract with contractors that are not registered and participating in a federal work-authorization program that determine lawful immigration status employees.
Author: Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice / Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota
Senate Bill 518
Requires every employer to use the federal E-Verify system to verify the employment eligibility of each employee.
Authors: Sen. Allen Hays, R-Umatilla
That could be because supporters are now facing push back from the business community.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce – which was among the GOPs biggest financial supporters in last year’s election – has told legislators to proceed with caution when they deal with immigration laws.
“Any actions that are taken on immigration reform should take into consideration the chilling effect that may have on foreign investment,” said David Brill, president of the Florida Chamber.
Florida has a greater reliance on tourism than Arizona, Brill said, and Arizona has lost an estimated $141 million in revenue because of decline in tourism and conferences since Senate Bill 1070 was enacted last year.
SOMOS Republicans, a national Hispanic GOP group, has also warned of the repercussions of enacting an immigration law. The group issued a release critical of Snyder’s plan that proclaimed it was an “anti-immigration law” that will “destroy the little Havana’s robust economy which Cuban fathers helped to create in Miami.”
That criticism may be falling on ears in high places.
Gov. Rick Scott – who during his primary campaign ran ads calling Arizona’s immigration law common sense – continues to say law enforcement officers should be able to ask for immigration documentation including during routine traffic stops. Yet Jenn Meale, the governor’s spokeswoman, declined to say whether Scott would support proposed legislation.
“Gov. Scott believes that the federal government needs to secure our borders,” Meale said. “If someone is in Florida and violates the law, law enforcement should be able to request proper identification. We can enforce immigration laws without racial profiling.”
State Attorney General Pam Bondi said she intends to simply monitor any legislation regarding immigration, unlike McCollum.
Bennett said his goal isn’t meant to target a person based on race or ethnicity, and his bill would only be triggered if the person is acting outside the limits of the law.
“I don’t want an Arizona-style bill,” he said.
That’s good news to some, who say an Arizona-style law wouldn’t work in the Sunshine State.
“A cut and paste of the Arizona law in Florida is the wrong approach,” said Sterling Ivey, the spokesman for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnum. “So the solution has to allow for a stable, legal work force for all industries including the agriculture sector.”
Racial and ethnic profiling isn’t the only constitutional concern.
Milhizer, of Ave Maria School of Law, said there could be constitutional issues when it pertains to whether the state law has interfered with federal authorities over immigration.
Milhizer said the fact the proposed legislation provides for criminal penalties over immigration “seems to conflict with federal law, and thus would exceed the state’s authority and be unconstitutional.”
Arizona lawmakers have already run into legal trouble when it comes to their law. A variation of the original law was passed by Arizona legislators in April, and shortly thereafter the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state saying immigration enforcement was federal in scope.
A federal judge blocked aspects of the law in July, but the ruling is now under appeal.
With lawsuits come legal fees, and Angelina Castro, an immigration attorney from Palm City, said Floridians should be concerned about the fiscal cost that comes from enacting an immigration law.
“I’m not sure why we want to incur this kind of expense for our state,” said Castro, the former director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center. Arizona has “spent millions of dollars defending the bill from lawsuits. Is that something Florida wants to do? I know that is not something I want to do with my tax money.”
But proponents say allowing the state, county and local law enforcement officers to arrest people who are illegally in the state, as well as requiring businesses to report the immigration status of its employees, would reduce costs in health care and schools.
“We need laws like this, laws are meant to be followed, those who don’t want to follow the law, that means you’re outside the law,” said Bill Landis, chairman of the Florida Minutemen, a citizens watchdog group focused on border protection.
“There is a big problem, and the problem is the federal government has not done their job.”
University of Florida’s Ortiz said he expects there to be continued opposition to the proposed law, but ultimately it won’t stop legislators from moving forward.
“We’re trying to recover from a major, major recession and there’s a lot of anger out there,” he said.
“During these times of crisis we look for scapegoats and look for people to blame. We’re not going to do much about investment bankers, they’re powerful people … but we can say something about Mexican workers. They’re powerless, they can’t vote and they can’t operate politically.”
Jim Turner from Treasure Coast Newspapers contributed to this story.