Lawmaker Dials Down Rhetoric in Immigration Talks

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

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 27, 2011 --

The Legislature’s point man on immigration retreated substantially from an Arizona-style proposal Thursday, raising the possibility that law enforcement officers could only check a person’s immigrant status if he or she is being investigated for criminal wrongdoing.

Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, who has been fine-tuning an immigration proposal he made several months ago, said during a legislative committee meeting that he would be willing to look at changes to his original draft, which like an Arizona law allowed police officers to ask for immigration papers from any person during any lawful stop, such as pulling over a driver for a traffic violation.

Snyder's initial draft legislation, released this past summer, would also require businesses to use the federal E-Verify 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.

The House Judiciary Committee held a two-hour workshop Thursday to begin vetting ideas for a comprehensive changes to state immigration law, the first meeting it has had on the subject since new lawmakers were sworn into office in November. During the hearing, Snyder indicated his continued support for E-Verify but said he may be willing to raise the threshold needed before law enforcement officers ask for proof of immigration status.

“There are several policy changes we can make depending on the direction the committee wants to go,” he told reporters. “So I’m open to suggestions. I’m open to what we discussed today.”

The Senate has held two similar meetings, including one earlier this week during which business leaders urged senators to tread lightly because of the linkage between the state’s economy and the immigrant workforce.

Among the ideas floated during Thursday’s House committee meeting were the expanded use of E-Verify, immigration checks during a criminal investigation and enhanced sentencing for illegal immigrants.

The immigration issue was a top priority for Gov. Rick Scott during the campaign. One of his first acts as governor included signing an executive order that requires state agencies to screen new employees through the E-Verify system to ensure they are legal U.S. residents. State Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has filed SB 518, which would require private employers to use the same system on new hires.

Scott Thursday reiterated his support for an Arizona-style immigration law in Florida and said the federal government has the responsibility to secure the country’s borders and enact immigration policy that is comprehensive, logical and fair.

"I also believe if you are in the country and do something illegal, you should be asked (for immigration status,)" Scott said. "Just like I should be asked for my ID if I get a traffic ticket, they should be asked if they are legal or not. I truly do not believe in racial profiling."

Other top Florida officials are divided on the issue. Attorney General Pam Bondi has said that she would like to see a proposal as long as it did not include racial profiling and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has cautioned that an Arizona-style proposal would be bad for Florida’s economy.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee largely focused on the potential of expanding E-Verify to employees throughout the state as part of any new legislation. A 2010 Government Accountability Office report said that the system effectively confirmed just more than 97 percent of about 8.2 million new hires during the 2009/10 fiscal year.

But some lawmakers remained wary that the system could adequately check all employees throughout the state. Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, said though the error rate seemed “miniscule” in the big picture, it still could cause problems for a number of Florida residents who are in the country legally.

“For that individual who gets [an error], it’s not miniscule,” he said.

Snyder has been actively courting members of the state’s Hispanic community to get their support for any legislation that the committee produces. He has promised the Legislature’s Hispanic Caucus Chair Esteban Bovo, R-Miami, that all potential bill language will be shared with him.

Bovo, who is not a member of the Judiciary Committee but attended at Snyder’s invitation, told his colleagues that he questions whether the state needs an immigration law and would hate to see a law passed “for the sake of politics.”

“One of the issues that causes me concern is that conditions that led Arizona to create a law do not exist in Florida,” Bovo said.

Snyder said he hopes to continue to take input and suggestions from lawmakers and the public before filing a proposal. He has not said when a bill would be forthcoming.

“If we’re moderate and thoughtful, we can produce good policy that I think the business community and the immigrant advocate community will be satisfied with,” he said.


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