Potential Arizona-style immigration law divides Florida public, law enforcement

TAMPA — Neil Lewis' cramped immigration law office reverberates from the ring of yet another telephone call. Each anxious voice on the other end poses the same question.

"Is that going to come here?" Lewis said, echoing his clients' apprehensive queries.

Across the state, Floridians are paying close attention as state lawmakers begin to craft a tough, Arizona-style immigration law that would grant law enforcement officials broad authority to act as immigration investigators.

Under the proposed law, criminal suspects and traffic law violators would need to show proof of legal residency if questioned. Insufficient documentation could result in a trip to a local federal detention center.

State Rep. William Snyder, the leading architect of the effort, said he aims to help illegal immigrants whose deportation fears make them easy prey for abusive employers and violent criminals.

"It is not right, in a civilized country, in a nation of laws, to allow this to go on," said Snyder, a Republican from Stuart who once served as a police officer.

The prospect of the law limiting the use of scarce tax dollars for health care, education, law enforcement and other government services for the state's 720,000 undocumented residents — the third largest in the nation — could also create a receptive political environment.

Opponents, however, maintain that an Arizona-style solution to Florida's sprawling illegal population will do more harm than good. They raise the specter of tourism boycotts and say the state's many Latin American business partners could interpret the law as an unfriendly, or, worse, racist gesture. They also argue that overwhelmed police might have less time to pursue violent suspects and that undocumented workers could move further into secret underworlds of illegal employment.

"Fear in our immigrant community these days is palpable," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

The emerging battle reflects a national refocus on the social and fiscal costs of illegal immigration amid Wall Street losses, double-digit unemployment and government deficits.

President Barack Obama has vowed to transform the troubled immigration system, while challenging the Arizona law.

At the same time, support for the law has blossomed, with more than a dozen states looking to follow Arizona's lead.

In Florida, advocates propel their cause citing recent headlines and crime reports.

In the most recent legislative session, mental health was a target after state health officials revealed mentally ill patients were on waiting lists because state hospitals were crowded with illegal immigrants.

And in May, after Pasco County deputies arrested two brothers from Mexico for harboring guns and drugs, Sheriff Bob White defended the Arizona law at a news conference, saying it would help officials round up people who are not here legally.

Asked about this in a recent interview, he said: "Thrusting a transient and unsupported immigrant population on an already struggling economy with high unemployment and debt creates an unacceptable and unnecessary burden on taxpayers and on the quality of life of our communities."

Critics of the law also bewail an inept immigration system.

Federal laws favor wealthy, educated visa applicants, making it hard for many foreigners hoping to follow the well-worn path to a better life pursued by earlier waves of immigrants.

Since 2000, the U.S. illegal immigrant population has grown by more than 2 million to an estimated 10.8 million, a 27 percent jump, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

"Our federal immigration system is currently broken," said Ramzy Kilic, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Tampa.

Lawmakers have yet to look at the potential costs of enforcing a Florida law. It would, however, mean a significant shift for many law enforcement departments.

Sheriff Bill Farmer detains illegal immigrants arrested in Sumter County, where expansive farms summon Hispanic laborers. But undocumented suspects that are not arrested are let go.

"We are not here policing and looking for any illegal immigrants," said Farmer, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. "We feel it is (U.S.) Immigration's responsibility."

That Florida legislators would seek to import an immigration solution from Arizona, a state with stark demographic and political differences, speaks to the law's presumed appeal among conservative voters wary of a swelling tide of Mexican and Central American immigrants when government is strained and jobs are scarce.

"They are stealing legitimate Americans' jobs," said Enos Schera, 84, founder of Citizens of Dade United, an anti-illegal immigrant group in Miami. "The federal government won't do anything about it."

GOP contenders, eager to stand out in the August primary, have made immigration a banner issue. Naples businessman Rick Scott slid out of obscurity in May with the help of a television ad blitz in which he vowed to adopt Arizona's immigration law if elected governor.

His rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, wavered for weeks, then — seeing how well Scott's stance went over with tea party loyalists — volunteered his own staff to help write a Florida law.

Some down-ballot candidates, likewise, have seized on the idea. A handful of state Senate and House members are stumping for a Florida law.

Others, such as U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, stopped short of calling for a Florida law, while praising Arizona's independence and resourcefulness.

Variables make it hard to predict how the anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric will play in the election. But Florida, to be sure, is no Arizona.

The state's tropical climate and proximity to the Caribbean still lure Cuban, Haitian and Dominican transplants, but the Department of Homeland Security estimates the illegal immigrant population dropped by 80,000 since 2000, to about 720,000.

In contrast, Arizona saw a 42 percent hike in illegal immigrants during that same period. Its undocumented population stands at an estimated 460,000.

Still, Florida has the largest undocumented population in the nation behind California and Texas, and that alone could become a forceful rallying cry.

More than a half dozen illegal immigrants interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times shared stories of willful lawlessness and steadfast dread. All were aware that they had broken laws to build lives here, using false identification cards or accepting cash payments to avoid notice. Some earned as much as $16 an hour working 50-hour weeks with no benefits, be it health insurance or a lunch break. All feared being deported to countries with limited economic prospects.

David Solis sold off his possessions for collateral, kissed his ailing mother goodbye and fled his native Venezuela eight years ago for the unstable, shadowy existence of an illegal immigrant in the United States.

Solis, a Clearwater construction worker with a 3-year-old son and a baby girl on the way, has applied for an employment visa multiple times to no avail. Shady lawyers promised to help and pocketed his wages, only to then ignore his calls. Still, the $12 an hour he makes as a personal driver far exceeds what he would earn at home. And, his children were born here, making them U.S. citizens, a status he insisted was worth any risk.

Legal immigrants also said they fear the proposed law.

"It is going to give rise to ethnic profiling," said Neelofer Syed, a Pakistani-born immigration lawyer in Tampa. "How do you look for it? Because someone dresses differently or they have an accent?" Immigrants should be celebrated for adding to American life, not reviled, she said.

"I think I am contributing," she said. "I am helping people, I pay taxes, all of that."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

Immigration challenge

The Justice Department filed suit Tuesday against Arizona, charging that its new immigration law, set to take effect July 29, is unconstitutional and requesting a preliminary injunction. The suit says the law illegally intrudes on federal prerogatives, invoking as its main argument the legal doctrine of "pre-emption," which is based on the Constitution's supremacy clause and says that federal law trumps state statutes. The filing also asserts that the law would harm people's civil rights, leading to police harassment of U.S. citizens and foreigners.

Potential Arizona-style immigration law divides Florida public, law enforcement 07/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 12:34am]

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