South Florida Sun-Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX
A Legislature reluctant to tackle immigration policy in an election year made its first foray into the issue Tuesday with a proposal to kick out of the county illegal immigrants in Florida's prisons who volunteer to be deported.
Even that measure, approved on a bipartisan vote in its first Senate committee stop, is billed by supporters more as a cost-saving measure than a bid to crack down on illegal immigrants.
With the Florida Legislature's annual lawmaking session halfway over, the hot-button issue of illegal immigration has largely been absent from the agenda. Bills to deny illegal immigrants state benefits such as food stamps and require companies to verify the legal status of employees have been idled as state legislators have dealt with a $3 billion budget shortfall.
"I don't know who is blocking it, but they're doing the public a disservice," said Republican Rep. Don Brown who is sponsoring one of the toughest bills targeting illegal immigrants. His bill would, among other things, prohibit so-called "sanctuary cities" where local police are barred from enforcing immigration laws.
Meanwhile, states across the country are moving to beef up laws dealing with issues stemming from the estimated 12 million people in the United States illegally. A spike in activity on the immigration front swept through state capitals after talks in Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws broke down last year.
The Senate bill (SB1086), which cleared the Criminal Justice Committee by unanimous vote Tuesday, would allow for deportation of the estimated 5,000 illegal immigrants in Florida prisons, as long as they've served 50 percent of their sentences and agree to be deported. Similar laws in New York and Arizona saved the states $141 million and $13 million in inmate costs from 2005 to 2007, respectively.
But even this bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Mike Bennett has yet to get a hearing in the House. That chamber has scheduled a workshop on immigration policy next week _ a sign, to Brown, that immigration bills have a dim chance of passage during the session that ends May 2.
Still, some legislative leaders including Republican House Majority Leader Adam Hasner say there's still time to address immigration policy, especially since the Senate took the first step Tuesday.
Some maintain Florida should do nothing. Courtney Strickland, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said, "It's not a great idea to have a patchwork of laws and policies across the states."
But many other states have stepped in to fill what they perceive as a vacuum caused by federal inaction. In 2007, state legislatures adopted 240 bills related to immigration _ a threefold increase over the previous year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Many of the new restrictions focus on the workplace. Two states _ Arizona and Oklahoma _ require all employers to verify the legal status of their workers, while a dozen others require such verification for companies that receive public subsidies or government contracts. Other states have focused on tightening identification laws and making sure only legal residents can get public benefits.
Christine Jones, of the Palm Beach County Coalition for Immigration Rights, criticized such state laws as an "attempt to divide and cause fear by legislators who think they're going to be solving problems that we've had long before the immigration debate."
But lawmakers also face pressure from opposing groups that advocate a much harder line against immigrants _ groups that are stepping up their activity in a campaign season, said Ann Morse, an immigration expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One such effort comes from a group called Border Control Now, which is airing an Internet ad accusing Republican Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio of blocking bills targeting illegal immigrants. Rubio spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said she hadn't seen the ad.
Others are taking steps to stem such criticism. Republican Sen. Jeff Atwater sent a letter to constituents vowing to push legislation to "awaken Congress and the Florida Legislature about the consequences associated with the complex issue of granting blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants." He is a co-sponsor of Bennett's bill to deport illegal immigrants serving prison terms.
The House's Brown said the public wants action, whether from the state or the federal government.
"We have laws, and we expect our own citizens to obey the laws," he said. "I have a heart for the plight of people who have enjoyed the lax enforcement of our immigration laws. But we must require that our laws be honored."