[UPDATE] Senate Holds First Immigration Meeting

By: Amy Long; Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Amy Long; Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 10, 2011 --

With immigration one of the top issues in the nation’s legislatures in the wake of last year’s Arizona law, a panel of Florida senators took its first steps Monday in crafting its own law to deal with those suspected of being here illegally.

The Florida Senate held a three hour meeting to gather information from homeland security officials, the state Department of Education, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Highway Safety on how both legal and illegal immigration affects the state. The meeting spurred no immediate plans for legislation, and was intended as a way to start people asking questions to learn about the issue, said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who chaired the meeting.

“The most important thing that we want is input from all people from across the state of Florida, whether you’re on one side, the other side or as I suggested earlier, there’s probably 20 sides to the issue,” Flores said.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has filed a bill addressing illegal immigration and in the House, Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, is spearheading similar efforts. The issue became a major focal point in the govenror’s and attorney general’s campaigns last year. Both Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott have said they are supportive of strengthening the state’s laws for removing illegal immigrants, though neither has put forth a specific proposal.

Snyder’s draft legislation would require police to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants during a lawful stop, 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.

Bennett’s bill (SB 136) allows law enforcement officers during a lawful detention or arrest to ask for the detainee's immigration documents if the officer suspects they may be in the country illegally. The bill, however, prohibits law enforcement from using race as a reason for checking the person's documentation. The bill also penalizes legal aliens who refuse to carry their documentation, with a possible fine of up to $100 and a 20-day jail sentence.

Monday’s meeting contained little debate from lawmakers, but featured presentations from a variety of state and federal agencies about the impact of immigrants on the state.

Florida International University law professor Ediberto Rámon did caution lawmakers that he believed an Arizona-style law would be struck down by the courts and that it would be devastating to the state’s economy because it would turn off international tourists. He also said the state shouldn’t discount the positive economic impact immigrants have on the state.

“The business sector is reaping the benefit and then you see frustration as you see here at the state and the local levels,” Rámon said. “Frankly some of it is legitimate in terms of health care in the short term, in terms of education.”

Flores said no agenda has been set for the two other meetings that Senate President Mike Haridopolos has pledged to hold on the issue, but she said the next step would be to hear from some of the advocates.

Juan Chavez, a membership organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said he believes the Legislature does need to hear more about immigrants’ contributions to the state, but he also questioned whether lawmakers could put together a bill that did not have a racial component, despite pledges from legislators to do so.

“If they bring something similar [to Arizona’s law], it will be a good sign that they are ignoring Floridians,” he said. “And that’s basically a good sign to destroy the economy of the state. So we’d be basically legalizing racial profiling if they bring something similar.”

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Sen. Anitiere Flores from Miami chaired the first informational immigration meeting where homeland security, education officials , and law enforcement officers shed light on the current legal and illegal immigration status.

Four bills to change immigration law in Florida have already been filed for the upcoming session.

The senate judiciary committee anticipates immigration to be a session long debate.

Lobbyist, David Custin says "You have to realize when it comes to immigration and illegal immigration it's not something new, there have been bills in the past to deal with what's a federal issue at the state level in years past. So it's not new and I'm not surprised that there are four bills. I'm surprised there are not more."

This was the first of 3 or 4 informational meetings the senate will hold prior to session to be sure everyone is briefed before the Legislature makes policy.

Agent Ralph Bradley with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also took to podium to give a snapshot of the efforts the Immigration Custom Enforcement make every day, covering 400 cities in the nation one office in Tallahassee.


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