Tallahassee, FL - The first crack at an Arizona-style immigration overhaul has been filed in the Florida Senate, with a proposal that would let law enforcement officers ask suspected illegal aliens to prove their immigration status and could penalize some legal immigrants who aren’t carrying proper documentation.
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is the first volley in a likely long and heated debate over the future of immigration policy in the state. Since the passage of the Arizona law last spring, many Florida Republicans – including Gov.-elect Rick Scott - have argued that Florida needs a similar law and campaigned on the issue throughout the summer and into the fall.
“Any time you file a bill it’s basically opening up for dialogue, opening up for discussion, opening up for debate,” Bennett said.
Scott, in particular, made the Arizona law a major piece of his race for governor, frequently mentioning it at campaign stops and urging Floridians to follow his lead and make a donation to Arizona’s Border Security and Immigration Legal Defense Fund. Since his election in November, the incoming governor has been largely quiet on the subject and has not drawn up any specific proposals yet, but his spokesman said the governor maintains his position on the issue.
“I have no specifics right now on what an immigration bill would have to have, but his position is still if someone violates Florida laws, the police should ask if they are legal or not,” said Scott spokesman Trey Stapleton. “If they are in the state illegally they should be deported.”
Bennett’s measure would allow 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.
Bennett said his goal with the legislation was for the Legislature to crack down on the criminal elements sometimes associated with illegal immigration, such as gang violence or drug trade. It is not, he said, to punish people who live and work in Florida legally.
“I don’t think anyone is looking for a bill that has a police officer stopping everyone on the street who has a tan or dark hair,” he said.
Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, unveiled an outline of his own immigration proposal this past summer with outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum, but has not officially filed the bill yet. His original proposed measure 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 could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but told the News Service earlier this month that he was still working on the measure and planned to meet with the governor-elect as well as Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi. Bennett said he has not spoken yet with the governor-elect or Bondi , who also used the Arizona law as a campaign talking point throughout the race with Democrat Dan Gelber for attorney general.
“AG-elect Bondi has not yet reviewed Sen. Bennett's bill,” said spokesman Kim Kirtley. “She intends to work with the Legislature to ensure that any immigration bill protects the public, upholds the rule of law, and guards against racial profiling."
The major concern over the bill is that it could lead to racial profiling of the state’s Hispanic residents, despite legislative promises that it will not. According to research by the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly one in four Americans said Hispanics are discriminated against “a lot” in society.
State Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Miami, who is the chair of the legislative Hispanic caucus, did not return a call seeking comment, but he has remained publicly cautious over the future of the bill, noting that Florida has not experienced some of the violence and crime that Arizona has. Bovo told the Tampa Tribune last week that everything should take a backseat to job creation and that he hopes the immigration issue “does not become a sideshow and take up a lot of valuable time.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of Nov. 10, six other states have already filed immigration bills similar to Arizona’s and six other states have filed resolutions either supporting or condemning Arizona’s law.
Lawmakers are in Tallahassee next week to begin committee meetings, but agendas have not yet been released. Bennett’s measure, SB 136, has already been referred to the Criminal Justice, Judiciary, and Budget committees.