TALLAHASSEE — A praying mass of immigrants and their supporters brought a Florida Senate budget committee to a halt Wednesday to oppose a contentious bill they liken to an Arizona-style illegal immigration crackdown.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, announced at the beginning of the meeting that the bill would not be heard. More than 100 people who had come to protest the measure stood up and asked to be heard.
Alexander allowed some comments. The group sent up two girls who had trouble reaching the microphone.
"I am here for all the kids that didn't come because they were taking the FCAT," said 10-year-old Karla Amaya of Clearwater, referring to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. "We don't want our parents to be deported because they're the ones … that protect us."
"They work so hard so they can buy us clothes and shelter and other stuff," said Nayeli Chagoya, 9, also of Clearwater.
They were followed by the Rev. Charles McKenzie of the NAACP and Tampa's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, an organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"The children have spoken. The question is: Is this assembly listening?" McKenzie said. "Before you today is a matter of rightness and wrongness, and I hope that you would follow where the moral compass is leading and not just the discontented and angry voices of a few."
Polls have shown cracking down on illegal immigration is popular — except among Hispanics, a key voting bloc in Florida.
Of the crop of immigration bills in the Legislature, the Senate measure focuses on employers verifying the immigration status of prospective employees. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has relaxed an earlier plan to get local police officers to try to enforce federal immigration law.
The bill won't get another hearing until after Easter. A more stringent bill, put forth by Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, will be heard Thursday by a panel in the House.
By the time McKenzie finished testifying before the Senate committee Wednesday, dozens of people had assembled near him.
A final speaker led the group in a tearful prayer.
"I'll just pray for you guys," Cecilia Perez told senators, with news media cameras flashing.
Patricia Mazzei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.