By Elizabeth Koh
Fulfilling a key, controversial campaign promise popular with his party's base, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Friday that will ban so-called "sanctuary cities" in Florida, though the policy is expected to draw a legal skirmish over its constitutionality as it goes into effect next month.
The bill, SB 168, requires local and state law enforcement officials and entities to honor federal "immigration detainer" requests, which ask a law enforcement agency to detain someone on probable cause that they are "removable" under federal immigration laws. It also prohibits local officials from implementing "sanctuary" policies, which had previously not been defined in state law, and gives the governor the authority to remove them if they do not comply with the law. There are no "sanctuary cities" in Florida.
Joined by ally U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the area, and bill sponsor state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, DeSantis told a packed crowd in the chambers of the Okaloosa County Commission that the bill "is about the rule of law" and "public safety."
"I said we were going to do certain things, and I'm happy to report after having just one legislative session under our belt we're delivering on the promises we made to the people of Florida," he said to applause. Though no local governments currently have such policies in the state, he cast "sanctuary cities" as "law-free zones" where people could arrive illegally and commit crimes, "and then just walk out the door and continue to do it."
The signing, where DeSantis and several lawmakers touted the progress the Legislature made on several Republican issues during the session, had the feel more of a crowded campaign rally than a typical bill signing. More than 300 people were in the room, said Gruters, reflecting what he said was support for the governor and the new law. "The room was busting at the seams. When was the last time you've seen 300-plus people for a bill signing?"
The controversial proposal had been brought before the Legislature before but passed this year in part thanks to DeSantis' aggressive support. The former congressman had made banning "sanctuary cities" a key part of his gubernatorial campaign and met regularly with lawmakers throughout the session to ensure it had the votes to pass.
The issue drew weeks of impassioned, pained testimony on both sides, as well as protests that stirred the Capitol and even disrupted proceedings on the House floor in the final days of the legislative session.
Advocates of the bill had contended that the bill would only affect people who had been charged with a crime and ensure compliance with federal laws. Opponents, including business and immigrants' rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the bill would have unintended consequences, splitting immigrant families and hurting minority communities.
As DeSantis signed the bill into law Friday, some of those opposing groups criticized what they called "one of the worst anti-immigrant laws in the country."
"Laws like this are proven to negatively impact people in immigrant communities, who will be less likely to report crime to the police or cooperate with investigations, for fear of immigration enforcement against themselves or their neighbors," said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, in a statement. He accused DeSantis and Republican lawmakers of using "racial grievance to drive a wedge between Floridians."
"It undermines public safety making our towns and cities less safe by requiring local law enforcement to spend less of their time and resources fighting crime in local communities and more on doing the work of federal immigration authorities."
Andrea Mercado, executive director of the progressive New Florida Majority group, said in a statement that the organization "will back legal challenges to this law."
But the passage of the bill will not dramatically change how local law enforcement already interacts with federal authorities, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was a powerful proponent of the bill: "It doesn't change anything because we've been doing that for years."
"This is not dealing with what cops deal with on the street. This has nothing to do with turning people over [to ICE]," he said. "It only has to do with criminals that are in the jail who ICE has a warrant to further arrest. It's us serving that warrant for the arrest."
He criticized opponents for "spinning [the bill] the wrong way" and for raising the specter of a lawsuit challenging the bill. "If you've got it, bring it on," he said. "But they don't have it. It is lawful. It is legal. ... It doesn't violate any other laws."
Florida is the latest among several states that have taken up or are considering similar policies, including Arkansas, which recently also passed a "sanctuary cities" ban.
The proposal was a popular issue among DeSantis' supporters, particularly in the Republican-leaning Panhandle. In rural Okaloosa County, where the bill was signed, interest in DeSantis' appearance was so high that the event was moved from the county sheriff's office to the county's commission chambers in Shalimar, which can hold eight times as many people. Of the county's 180,000 residents, 6% are Hispanic or Latino.
Shortly after the event, Gruters was also citing its passage to solicit campaign contributions online, saying "liberals on the left are redirecting their efforts from defeating the bill to defeating me in 2020."
Above a request for donations, including one for $20.20, he wrote, "Can you chip-in to help me get our message directly to the voters?"
Gruters said he had promoted the fundraising request because "the Democrats are trying to take me out in part because of that bill," though he represents a firmly Republican district in the state. "I will take the credit for the fact I was the sponsor of the bill. I'm going to celebrate the fact I was able to make that happen," he added. "I'm going to use it to my advantage. ... I consider it a significant legislative victory."
Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.
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