TALLAHASSEE — When a group of immigration activists and children of immigrants flooded Senate President Mike Haridopolos' office, the Republican leader defused the situation by meeting them and chatting with the kids.
But he steadfastly refused to heed their call to use his power and stop an immigration crackdown bill. Haridopolos said his fellow senators were handling the bill — not him.
"We held six hours worth of hearings because we wanted to get all of the facts on the table," he said on Tuesday. "We're using our ears more than our mouth."
Behind closed doors, though, Haridopolos was laying the groundwork to weigh in and take the bill away from Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who held the public hearings to produce a consensus product that stopped well short of an Arizona-style immigration bill.
Late Wednesday — with the 60-day session nearing its end —Haridopolos announced that Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander would carry the bill.
"It is clear that the Senate has decided to take a different position on the bill. I'm not aware of what that position is. I'm eager to see what these proposals may be," said Flores, who was one of the first state senators to endorse Haridopolos' U.S. Senate candidacy.
Running in a crowded Republican primary, Haridopolos needs the support of hard-core conservatives who have pushed for the bill.
Haridopolos said he favors checking the immigration status of inmates, which the Senate bill already proposes. But he also wants the state to use the federal government's e-Verify system to screen job applicants at work force agencies and people who apply for state aid.
He praised Flores and credited her with softening the early immigration proposals.
"She took the time to elevate some issues, and I think it even led to some changes in the House bill," he said.
Neither bill goes as far as a controversial law in Arizona, which requires police to determine a person's immigration status whenever an officer makes "any lawful contact" with the individual. That legislation has been partially blocked by courts.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the Senate is considering checking the status of people after they are arrested and read their Miranda rights.
Alexander has said immigration reform is not one of his legislative priorities. He did not hold a special budget committee meeting Thursday to take up the bill, which instead will go straight to the Senate floor.
A citrus grower, Alexander is in a unique position to understand the concerns of the agricultural lobby, which like big business is strongly against the bill. The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce sent Haridopolos a letter Thursday registering its opposition. Other heavy hitters in the Capitol also oppose the legislation: the Florida Catholic Conference, Associated Industries of Florida and Disney.
But outside the Capitol, taking on immigration is good politics. The election of Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio showed that tough stances on immigration aren't necessarily impediments to winning elections in a state where Hispanics make up a coveted voting bloc.
Flores, a Cuban-American, has taken heat in Miami for putting forth the legislation. She defended taking on the thorny issue because she would be sensitive to Hispanic fears that any immigration measure would inevitably result in racial profiling.
Flores wouldn't say if she plans to vote against the legislation, SB 2040, which she essentially sponsored. She doesn't favor a stricter House bill, HB 7089, but Flores said she needs to see the new Senate version first.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.