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Protesters take some credit for weakened immigration bill

TALLAHASSEE — For two days this week, Sen. J.D. Alexander sat behind his desk on the floor of the Florida Senate with a rosary draped across his laptop screen.

It was a gift from one of the hundreds of immigrant children and their parents who for weeks visited the state Capitol to protest a proposed immigration crackdown. The groups moved from holding outdoor protests at the steps of the Old Capitol to packing committee rooms and, eventually, taking over most of the fourth-floor lobby outside the Florida House and Senate chambers.

Some of their pleas were heard. The Senate signed off on its immigration bill Wednesday — but without a key provision pushing employers to check the immigration status of workers. That omission may kill any immigration reform this year because the House wants a tougher stance.

"It's easy to talk about — you know, down at the post office, at the bar — you know, we ought to do this thing," Alexander, R-Lake Wales, told senators in a floor speech Tuesday. "But when you start looking in people's eyes and understand they are people who live and breathe just like us — I think you all need to think about it very carefully."

The immigration proposals drew vocal opposition from across the political spectrum: big business, the agricultural industry, law enforcement officials, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Florida Catholic Conference.

Yet no group was more visible than the throngs of immigrants, most of them farm workers, organized by the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition.

After the Senate's 23-16 vote on Wednesday, dozens of the immigrants were ordered to leave the Capitol for singing while sitting in the visitors' gallery. The activists, wearing matching orange T-shirts, sang, "We who believe in freedom will not rest" immediately after the vote.

Once outside the building, they held hands in a circle.

"Today, we have enriched democracy by our presence," said Maria del Rosario Rodriguez, the coalition's executive director, telling the others that they could take some credit for the softer Senate legislation.

Over the last two weeks, the coalition, which was founded in 2004 and brings together immigrant rights groups from across the state, estimates it brought 2,000 protesters to the Capitol, most from Central Florida.

Each person contributed to the cost of the trip if they could afford it; one bus of about 55 people cost $1,000 to $2,000, organizer Subhash Kateel said. The coalition funded the rest of their efforts with donations from local business and churches — not from any single donor or big business, leaders said.

Tallahassee volunteers provided homemade meals, including hot dogs and chicken with rice, for the protesters outside the Capitol. One bus came into town prepared: for lunch, the group packed coolers full of tamales. If the protesters had to stay overnight, sometimes they slept on the floor of sympathetic local churches, which also gave the immigrants free breakfast.

Did their demonstrations have an effect on lawmakers?

"Not on me," said Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican who voted against SB 2040. His mind was made up long before the protests started, he said, adding that the federal government should take on immigration reform and the state should stick to using existing identification documents such as passports and driver licenses.

But the immigrants undoubtedly got noticed.

"Some members feel some of the lobbying activities are not wonderful," Alexander told reporters. "Others perhaps are able to understand these are people just like everybody else."

Alexander, the powerful budget chief tasked with leading the bill, ended up voting against it.

Despite signs on Wednesday that the immigration bills were dead, about a dozen immigrants spent the afternoon in the office of House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican, praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Protesters take some credit for weakened immigration bill 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 11:18pm]
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