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Florida lawmakers size up Arizona-style immigration bill

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's campaign pledge to bring an Arizona-style immigration law to Florida faces an uncertain future in the Legislature, with the bill's chief Senate sponsor expressing doubts about the controversial measure.

"There probably will not be an Arizona immigration-style bill that passes the Florida Senate," said Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican.

He said he's deeply concerned with the part of the bill that's most identified with Arizona's law: the requirement that local police with "reasonable suspicion" attempt to determine a person's immigration status during a routine traffic stop or arrest.

Echoing civil libertarians and Hispanic lawmakers, Bennett said the measure could lead to racial or ethnic profiling. Though the bill bans discrimination, he said it may not be enough.

"I might not even vote for it myself," said Bennett, adding that he copied much of the Arizona law "to start the conversation" about immigration reform.

Bennett and most other lawmakers, however, say they back requiring the state, and perhaps private employers, to check the immigration status of prospective employee by using the federal E-Verify system.

But E-Verify's not perfect.

Only federal contractors can use E-Verify to check existing employees, said Francine Hill, a Department of Homeland Security expert who warned that the system shouldn't be used to screen prospective employees. She said it doesn't clearly identify illegal immigrants, but instead spots "mismatches" in immigration and employment data.

Just what a final immigration bill will look like isn't clear. The state Senate on Monday held the first of three fact-finding public hearings to help craft a final bill.

Scott, focusing on his new administration's startup, hasn't yet waded into the legislative fray. Last week he signed an executive order requiring all agencies under his control to use E-Verify.

When asked about Bennett's bill, Scott said last week, "We're looking at that, but I haven't made a decision."

During the GOP primary, Scott made the Arizona-style law the subject of radio ads and recorded phone calls featuring his voice. "It seems to me to be a commonsense enforcement of already existing law," he said. "If you are breaking the law, then law enforcement should be able to ask for identification that shows you're in the United States legally. The only people who should fear the law are people who are not here legally."

Another time, Scott said talk about discrimination was "nonsense. As Republicans, we reject any discrimination of any kind."

But fear of discrimination and profiling is shared by the Legislature's 10-member Hispanic caucus, eight of whom are Republican. Hispanics are also the state's fastest-growing voting bloc.

South Florida lawmakers representing Haitian voters also have expressed concern. So has the Florida Catholic Conference, Florida Police Chiefs Association, farmworker advocates, farmers and business groups.

With so many interests concerned with or arrayed against the measure, the bill will have a rocky time in the Legislature. Still, polls show it is popular with a majority of voters.

The sponsor of the measure in the Florida House, Rep. William Snyder, said he's pushing ahead and expects it will pass his chamber. But unless it passes in the Senate, it won't become law.

Snyder, R-Stuart, said he understands the concerns about profiling and made sure to ban it. A former Miami police officer, Snyder said he favors the measure to stop gang activity and to halt the exploitation of undocumented immigrants.

Snyder hosted a town hall meeting Friday, and said he was floored when a farmer told him that the agricultural community needs illegal immigrant labor, which keeps the price of fruits and vegetables inexpensive.

"Outlawing slavery probably raised the price of cotton," Snyder said. "But it was the right thing to do."

Snyder said he's working with the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which frets that the law could turn police into de facto federal immigration officers. He said he's also trying to win the vote of the Hispanic caucus.

One of those Hispanic Republicans, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, chairs the Judiciary Committee and will manage the bill in the Senate.

On Monday, Flores kicked off three days of public hearings on the measure.

Her first speaker, a Senate staffer, cited federal statistics showing undocumented immigration has dropped 8 percent nationwide, and by about 25 percent in Florida.

Florida International University professor Ediberto Roman said the special immigration status of Cubans and Haitians could make the law far tougher for local police to enforce here.

And Robert Lord of Martin Memorial Health Systems told of "an extreme case" involving an injured undocumented immigrant who cost the hospital more than $1 million over three years. He said such patients could account for up to 5 percent of hospital charity cases, but he didn't have a cost estimate.

None of the speakers advocated the bill, but Bennett said something needs to be done.

"We feel the federal government hasn't done enough," said Bennett, who also wants to deport all undocumented immigrants in state prison. "If enough states take some action, the feds will eventually do their jobs."

Florida lawmakers size up Arizona-style immigration bill 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:14pm]
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