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Lawmakers Pass ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Ban

Florida Capitol
Michael Rivera

Legislation that would give Florida one of the strictest laws in the nation against so-called sanctuary cities is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis, giving him a chance to fulfill a key campaign promise. 

The governor praised the final passage of the bill Thursday by the House and Senate after emotional debate in both chambers during the final days of the legislative session. He thanked House Speaker Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, as well as the sponsors of the bill for “recognizing the importance of the issue.”

“Local law enforcement agencies can and should work with the federal government to ensure that accountability and justice are one in our state,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

The governor’s desire to force local and state officials to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities exposed a sharp partisan divide in the Legislature on how the state, which has about 800,000 undocumented immigrants, should enforce immigration laws. The legislative debate also came amid national battles about President Donald Trump’s attempts to curb illegal immigration.

The Senate voted 22-18 to pass the bill, with Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the only Republican to vote against it. About two hours later, the House approved the measure in a 68-45 vote, with Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, the only lawmakers to cross party lines.

Though the votes were almost totally partisan, House and Senate Republicans had to reach a compromise on the final version to send to the governor. That compromise involved stripping out penalties that the House had sought to include.

Those proposed penalties would have included fines for local governments and allowed lawsuits against local governments when people are killed or injured by undocumented immigrants because of sanctuary policies.

House sponsor Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said the governor’s staff worked with lawmakers to ensure DeSantis would have the power to start “judicial proceedings” against local or state officials who fail to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, something included in the compromise.

“The most important thing for the governor was that he be given the authority for removal under the Constitution, and we conferred in that and gave him that authority, so I am confident that he will sign it,” Byrd said.

The legislation, which the governor’s office said Thursday night DeSantis will review, would require local law-enforcement agencies to share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about undocumented immigrants who are in their custody. That would include campus police agencies and the Department of Children and Families, whose exclusion from a Senate version of the bill this week drew opposition from the House. The exclusion was eliminated Thursday.

Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said the Department of Children and Families would not be impacted under the bill, but that the agency should not be excluded because of “optics” and “perception” that would suggest it could act as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

“In order to land this plane, this is the bill we have to pass,” said Gruters, who doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

House and Senate Democrats spent hours fighting the bill, which they argued threatens undocumented immigrants --- including asylum seekers and young people covered by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy --- for minor state violations like driving without a license or driving with a broken taillight.

During debate, Hispanic Democrats shared personal stories about the struggles their families have faced in the United States. One of the most poignant testimonies came from Rep. Cindy Polo, a Miramar Democrat whose Colombian parents overstayed their visas and temporarily lived in the United States without documents.

“To my parents, thank you for not following the law, thank you for fighting a broken procedure,” Polo said. “And I am sorry we could not do more.”

Other Democrats argued the bill does not aim to fix any problem, but rather is focused on feeding the Republicans’ conservative political base. In Florida, no cities or counties have so-called sanctuary policies. When asked, Gruters could not point to any that would currently be in violation of the bill.

“This is a proactive bill that panders to fear,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “It panders to the specter of what is not.”

Gruters, however, argued that this bill will only target “criminal illegal aliens” who break the law and will force county jails to honor federal immigration detainers that would hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours.

“In talking about fear, it goes back to breaking the law,” Gruters said. “People should fear breaking the law. Because if you are not breaking the law and you are not getting arrested, you have nothing to fear.”

Gruters, however, said the bill added protections for undocumented immigrants who are victims and witnesses of certain crimes, which he said were the “most vulnerable members” in Florida.

“Nobody should ever be in fear of reporting injustices, and I hope that language can give people, and hopefully the press, that we are providing the protections needed for these victims and witnesses,” Gruters said.

In debate, Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, vowed to keep fighting the bill and said he looks forward to the day this “law is stripped from statute.” He also indicated the legislation passed Thursday will likely face constitutional challenges in court.

“That seems to be the way things go, and I expect there to be challenges,” Byrd, an attorney, said. “I am firm in my belief that this will meet constitutional muster.”

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