TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate panel tinkered with a contentious immigration proposal Monday, speeding through a hearing on the bill without allowing most immigration advocates who traveled to the Capitol in protest to speak.
The changes made by the Senate Judiciary Committee eased the requirements on local law enforcement to try to enforce federal immigration laws. Opponents of the bill likened the mandates to an immigration crackdown in Arizona, which they say opened to door to racial profiling.
More than 100 activists, immigrants and their children from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Pasco counties packed the meeting to testify against the bill by Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.
In its original form, the proposal would have mandated that the Florida Department of Corrections, Department of Law Enforcement and local sheriff offices try to enter into agreements with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enforce federal immigration laws.
On Monday, senators adopted an amendment put forth by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, to no longer require the agreements under certain circumstances. Instead, the departments will have to study the additional workload and expenses that would be created by entering into the agreements.
They also changed the bill to clarify alternatives that employers would have to using the federal government's e-Verify system to check the immigration status of prospective employees.
Subhash Kateel of the Florida Immigrant Coalition called the changes "a step in the right direction" but still questioned why the measure would be necessary.
"We still do not believe this is the time to deal with immigration in the Florida Legislature," he said, surrounded by the group that traveled from cities with large agricultural industries and immigrant populations, such as Homestead, Lake Worth and Dade City.
He was the only one of about 30 opponents allowed to speak as the committee rushed through a heavy agenda. Only a couple of speakers signed up in support.
Earlier, the immigration advocates held a news conference and prayer urging lawmakers to reconsider.
In committee, senators debated the proposal and its amendments for only about 15 minutes.
"I know that it's not perfect, but I can tell you it's not possible to be perfect," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.
The committee moved the bill forward on a party-line vote, with Joyner and Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens, voting against. Afterward, the advocates chanted, "Let us speak! Let us speak!" They swarmed Flores around the dais, urging her to hear their pleas and reminding her in Spanish that she's Hispanic.
The bill is not as bad as they think, Flores told them, arguing that she chose to head the immigration debate because otherwise, someone less receptive would have led the charge.
"You have one side saying that the bill didn't go far enough, the other side saying it went too far," she said. "Please, read the bill."
Patricia Mazzei can be reached at email@example.com.