Immigration Sponsor Vying for Hispanic Backing

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida


The lawmaker spearheading an effort to pass an Arizona-style immigration law in Florida is trying to get the state’s Hispanic community on board with his plans in an attempt to dispel fears that the measure will lead to flagrant racial profiling.

“The reality is the members of the Hispanic community are very nervous about this,” said state Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, who is pushing the measure. “I don’t think it is right for us to blow past that.”

Snyder, alongside outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum, unveiled the outline of an immigration proposal this summer that would require police to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants during a lawful stop, require businesses to use a federal database to check the status of new hires and subject illegal immigrants who commit crimes to harsher penalties than legal immigrants or U.S. citizens.

Snyder has not yet filed his bill, but Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has filed a similar measure in the Senate. Bennett told the News Service that his goal is to largely focus on the “criminal element” of illegal immigration that has sometimes led to gang violence and drug trafficking. He also said that he believes he will get the support of much of the Cuban community.

“Most of them are in agreement because their families are in agreement and they went to get rid of the bad element,” he said.

How far the Florida Legislature will go in advancing the immigration debate isn’t clear. Snyder, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, will likely be able to advance the measure to the full House and Bennett is a member of the Senate’s leadership team, giving him clout as well.

The idea, at least, will have the support of Gov.-elect Rick Scott and Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi who both campaigned on the issue.

Snyder is slated to meet with Bondi’s transition staff next week in Tallahassee and has reached out to the governor-elect’s staff as well.

Bondi has said she would support a bill only if it made significant provisions to ban racial profiling. In Arizona, the major backlash to the law has centered on the fear that it will lead to the violation of the rights of legal immigrants, or even Hispanics who may have been in the country for generations.

According to research conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly one in four Americans said that Hispanics are discriminated against “a lot.”

Snyder said he is meeting with several leaders of the Hispanic community and trying to set up town hall events to address concerns that some Floridians may have about an immigration overhaul. He also said he won’t be making any move on the proposal without first talking to the Legislature’s Hispanic caucus chair, state Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Miami, who has remained cautious about any proposals on the issue.

“I won’t do one thing with that bill, whether a committee hearing or a change, without him seeing it,” Snyder said. “Not one comma.”

Bovo said he plans to look carefully at the measure.

“And obviously that doesn’t indicate the caucus will support the issue, but at least we will be engaged in the process and debate the issue,” he said.

Bovo said he has not yet read Bennett’s bill and that that he didn’t expect significant debate to occur on the issue until the start of 2011. He also noted that the Legislature has a number of heavy issues to take up, particularly job creation and Medicaid reform that could overshadow immigration.

“If a product is produced, I think we’ll come up with something that protects our freedom,” he said. “We don’t want to create a police state. But we’ll see, we’ll see.”

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, one of a small handful of Democratic Hispanics in the Legislature, said she’s waiting to see how things shake out before committing to supporting or opposing the legislation. But she said she believes the federal government should be handling immigration policy. If the state does pass a law, she thinks it should focus on making it difficult for businesses to hire undocumented workers.

“If it’s hard for an undocumented individual to get a job, then it will be harder for them to stay here,” Cruz said.

An immigration bill could narrowly pass without support from Hispanic members of the Legislature, most of whom are Republican. However, Snyder said he would like their support.

“I would feel relieved and I would feel that it’s important to have the Hispanic caucus involved in the legislation, aware of what’s going on and participating,” Snyder said. “And I certainly would be thrilled with their support. “

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