TALLAHASSEE — A swarm of protesters bused in Monday from the Tampa Bay area called on God to prevent lawmakers from rolling ahead with an immigration crackdown, warning it will divide their families and lead to racial profiling.
At the end of the day, the protesters had a spontaneous and friendly meeting with Sen. J.D. Alexander, whose panel could hear one of the proposals this week.
The events started around noon when hundreds of children, their families and religious leaders chanted "We are Florida" as they snaked across the Capitol courtyard and waved signs targeting SB 2040 and HB 7089. Eventually they crowded the steps of the Old Capitol, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing the closing lines of "justice for all," and singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
"How many of you have faith in God that this law will not pass?" asked Cecilia Perez, a 16-year-old Largo High School sophomore, to an eruption of cheers.
"I am here to represent millions of children here in the state of Florida that do no want this law to pass," she said. "Why? Well, we do not want our families to be separated, first of all, and also we do not want anybody to have racial profiling around the state of Florida."
The protests, organized by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, are planned throughout the week. Protesters from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Orange counties, among other areas, planned to meet with their local delegations and speak against Arizona-style reforms.
Neither the House nor Senate version has been heard on the floor. SB 2040, sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is billed as a lighter approach to immigration reform than the House attempt, which makes being undocumented a misdemeanor. It is already a federal civil offense to enter the country illegally.
The House version, sponsored by Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, requires police to check the immigration status of a person under criminal investigation if there is "reasonable suspicion" he or she might be undocumented. The Senate bill would require police to check the status of inmates. Both bills require employers to check the immigration status of their employees, but the Senate version is more flexible about how to do it.
The differences don't really matter to the protesters. They don't want Florida lawmakers to attempt any reforms.
"We don't want to see families split up," said the Rev. Nancy Mayeux of Union Street United Methodist Church and the Light of Hispanic Mission in Clearwater. "We feel as if the system is broken on a federal basis and the state is trying to fix it on the backs of these families."
Mayeux said her Hispanic congregation comprises about 30 families. She said she gets calls from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who want to know what to do with American-born children of men and women who will be deported. They either enter foster care or are placed with other family members, she said. If SB 2040 passes, she fears this will happen more.
"The Bible tells us that the stranger is supposed to be welcomed," she said. "And we're not finding that here."
At the end of a long Senate Budget Committee on Monday afternoon, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, invited hundreds of immigrants for an impromptu meeting that ran over half an hour.
He and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, took questions as the crowd pleaded for compassion.
The gathering was quiet, compared to past, rowdy committee meetings on immigration this month. It ended with prayer, handshakes and applause for the lawmakers who stayed behind.
Alexander, who earlier told reporters that SB 2040 could be heard in his committee Thursday, said he couldn't promise he would stall or kill the bill.
"These are very challenging issues," he added. "If I grew up in a land ruled by great danger and gangs and drugs, I would have done everything in my power, as you have done, to improve the lives of our children. … A country can't have laws that aren't enforced. … I don't know why reasonable people can't find some sort of middle ground."