Florida Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum unveiled a sweeping immigration bill Wednesday that in some ways goes further than Arizona's controversial law to apprehend undocumented workers and residents.
The move could propel Florida to the forefront of a national debate over border security.
"Arizona is going to want this law," McCollum said. "We're better, we're stronger, we're tougher and we're fairer."
The proposed law would require immigrants to carry valid documentation or face up to 20 days in jail and would allow judges to hand down stiffer penalties to illegal immigrations who commit the same crimes as legal residents.
Florida's diverse population and dismal unemployment rate provide a unique setting for an Arizona-spawned policy that could increase local law enforcement budgets, transform low-wage industries and draw the ire of federal justice officials who have deemed Arizona's law unconstitutional.
The Legislature's GOP leadership is divided, with its Hispanic members issuing the strongest rebukes of the proposal. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and law enforcement leaders, unsure of its effects, also greeted the bill with mixed reviews.
McCollum unveiled the bill in Orlando alongside a raft of House Republicans, including Rep. William Snyder of Stuart, its sponsor. "We have the police powers, not the federal government," McCollum said.
Opponents called the bill a diversionary tactic.
"What exactly is this bill going to fix for Florida?" said Maria Rodriquez, executive director- of the Florida Immigrant Coalition in Miami. "It is not going to secure our borders. It is not going to address the foreclosure crisis. It is not going to get Floridians better jobs."
McCollum stressed that the law bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin and that police already have the right to ask about immigration status.
Reasonable suspicion to inquire about immigration status might include an altered driver's license or an admission of illegal residency, he said.
But some of his GOP allies questioned whether the measure could be put into practice.
"I am concerned that this could jeopardize civil liberties," said state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican who serves as the House's majority whip and is of Cuban descent.
Brendon Hensler, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the organization would challenge the bill if it became law, just as it challenged the Arizona law.
"It is un-American and against our American values to mandate that police officers use racial profiling when they are performing their day-to-day duties," he said.
Called the "Florida Immigration Enforcement Act," the 29-page bill mirrors Arizona's law in that it would require officers to verify a suspect's immigration status during all lawful stops, detentions and arrests, including municipal violations, when reasonable suspicion exists. A federal judge struck down a similar rule in Arizona last month.
Snyder said he disagreed with the ruling. "Some of the things that judge ruled on, we will not be fixing in our draft language."
The bill also reflects Arizona's ban on hiring illegal immigrants from a roadway or soliciting for employment as an illegal immigrant. Businesses, meanwhile, would have to run all new hires through a federal employment eligibility verification program.
It's a point that resonates deeply with anti-illegal immigration leaders, who claim illegal immigrants steal jobs from unemployed legal residents and push down wages.
"They will work for anything," said Tom Tomlinson, 66, a retired construction worker from Palm City and former president of an anti-illegal immigration group. "They won't complain about no drinking water. You don't have to give them any benefits. When they get hurt, you just drop them off at the hospital, then the taxpayers will take of them."
McCollum's legislation does not go far as Arizona's law in some ways. Floridians who harbor illegal immigrants would not face penalties, and law enforcement wouldn't be subject to lawsuits from citizens who contend the law is not being enforced. That watchdog role would fall to the state attorney general.
But, in a new twist, McCollum's bill calls for harsher criminal sentences for illegal immigrants. It also would allow judges to consider immigration status when deciding whether to set bail.
Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats fretted that the law would bring a spate of new inmates to his already underfunded jail, where more than 230 inmates did not have beds this week. The bill would not make Floridians safer because illegal immigrants who commit crimes are already reported to federal immigration officers, he said. "I see it potentially as an unfunded mandate," he said.
The Florida Highway Patrol union president, Trooper William Smith of Miami, agreed that the bill would strain limited law enforcement resources. But he said permanently removing illegal drivers from the road would make Floridians safer.
"People who don't have driver's license shouldn't be out there driving," he said. "You don't know if they know how to drive."
McCollum initially deemed the Arizona law too "far out," and it hurt him politically. GOP primary rival Rick Scott championed the policies relentlessly in campaign advertisements, and it helped carry him into first place among voters angry with the federal government's border control policies. That prompted McCollum to shift his stance.
Scott's camp taunted McCollum for "flip-flopping'' Wednesday. "Today's immigration proposal from Bill McCollum serves as just another example of why he can't be trusted," said Jennifer Baker, Scott's spokeswoman.
Jack Oliver, an organizer for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, said he found McCollum's timing suspect.
"Bill McCollum is coming to the dance a little bit late," said Oliver, a construction worker from Stuart. "It is curious to a lot of us that he is just beginning to address this now."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.