By Samantha J. Gross
Though it faced a near death in the Senate Rules Committee, a contentious bill aimed at banning so-called "sanctuary cities" is headed to the Senate floor.
The bill passed 9-8 Wednesday, as Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, voted no with the seven Democrats.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who met with immigrant advocates Wednesday morning, nearly missed the vote but returned in time to save the bill.
The twin bills -- SB 168 and HB 527 -- both passed through their final committees this week. They would create rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting "sanctuary" policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bills also would give whistle-blower status to officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.
Under these bills, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement's request for an "immigration detainer," meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a "removable alien" under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the "request" a requirement.
While there is no such thing as a sanctuary city in Florida, the bill would put a definition of "sanctuary city" into law.
Lee said it was a "tough vote," especially after meeting with immigrant families one-on-one. He said, however, that some of their concerns go beyond the scope of the bill.
"You empathize with their concerns," he said. "In my heart, I believe they are not well-founded concerns. If that turns out not to be the case, I'll be really disappointed."
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, assured the Senate panel that the proposed law would only affect illegal immigrants who were arrested or convicted of a crime.
"This is really to capture people who have been previously deported ... people with gang activity," he said.
Democrats took issue with the argument, bringing up ways the bill would affect those arrested for minor crimes and require government entities like schools and universities to comply with federal immigration enforcement.
At Wednesday's committee meeting and committee meetings past, Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, offered amendments rejected by Republicans on the panel, including measures to exempt state welfare workers from being required to share information with ICE, protect victims or witnesses to crime, and require a judicial warrant for a detainer request.
After the vote, Rodriguez said his Republican colleagues don't seem to understand the consequences the bill will have. He said he doesn't see the bill being changed much due to partisan politics and the focus on appealing to a base who voted for President Donald Trump.
The affirmative vote on the bill comes on the heels of Trump introducing a new proposal to transport undocumented immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to "sanctuary cities" across the country, like Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
"I believe this is for political reasons and not for policy reasons," he said. "What is actually worse is if they actually want to accomplish this. If they actually want to round up people that fit the profile of immigrants, that's even worse. The sponsor didn't seem to say anything to dissuade us from that."
During the heated debate Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, cut off a woman who said she was glad she moved to Fort Myers instead of Southeast Florida. She then stopped Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who said the bill was motivated by racism and fired back at the woman.
The two-hour hearing drew contentious debate among senators and the public alike, who went back and forth on the potential effects of the bill. Bill hearings on both "sanctuary city" bills have been emotional since the proposals were introduced, drawing both immigrant families and "angel families" who have lost loved ones to speak.
Bobby Michael shared the story of his son, who he said was killed in a car crash caused by an undocumented immigrant.
"We lost our son at 21 years of age due to an illegal alien who had been twice deported coming back, ignoring our laws," he said.
Jaylee Lopez, 11, and her 7-year-old cousin Isaac also testified, sharing the story of their undocumented parents.
"My mom moved to Florida after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, and even though she didn't want to, she was forced to flee and come here," Lopez said. "She lost everything. I don't understand how people like her, who are forced out of their homes and have to make do with what they got, are later labeled as 'criminals' if they get caught driving without a license."
The American Business Immigrant Coalition also recently penned an open letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva urging them to reject the legislation -- a letter signed by more than 120 leaders including Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas. Rodríguez, who has been a staunch opponent of the bill in the Senate, also signed the letter.
"This bill erodes trust between police and immigrants and thereby threatens the safety of all Floridians," the letter states. "When immigrants are afraid to report and be witnesses of crime, we all lose. We're asking you, as our elected leaders in Tallahassee, to stop this wrong-minded legislation and focus on solutions to real problems in our state."
The House version of the bill, which is also ready for a floor vote, builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. The proposal also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place.
The Senate proposal does not include the penalties but gives the attorney general authority to bring civil actions against municipalities that do not cooperate.
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