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Immigration bills face long odds in state House

TALLAHASSEE — At state capitals across the country, frustrated lawmakers have filed hundreds of bills to crack down on illegal immigration just one year after the congressional stalemate.

The topic is ready-made for Republican lawmakers in an election year. And Tuesday, six bills were aired before a Florida House panel.

Among the ideas: require police to report suspected undocumented immigrants, prohibit government benefits for adult undocumented immigrants, and even give criminals the option to be deported back to their home countries.

But the efforts are going nowhere — a reality that reflects the state's immigrant-dependent tourism and agricultural industries, and the political power of South Florida and its deep immigrant roots.

"There is nothing the state of Florida can do unilaterally to solve global warming. And there is nothing we can do unilaterally to solve immigration," said Marco Rubio, the Miami Republican who is the first Cuban-American to become House speaker.

The rush to respond to the failure of Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform last year has played out across the country.

In the first two months of 2008, more than 600 pieces of legislation have been introduced in 41 state legislatures, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But many states are finding it difficult to adopt because of cost issues and fears of racial profiling, said Ann Morse, a researcher for the group.

Add a whole other dynamic in Florida, where a handful of immigrants or their children now hold powerful legislative seats.

That hasn't stopped some state Republican lawmakers from trying. One used $9,000 in taxpayer money to send a campaign-style mailer to constituents urging them keep the pressure on.

"Dear neighbor," it reads, "we need to take matters into our own hands, since the federal government has refused to act," writes Rep. Gayle Harrell of Stuart.

Harrell, who is running for Congress, is the sponsor of a bill (HB 821) that requires law enforcement officers to report any undocumented immigrants and requires state agencies that provide public benefits to verify citizenship of anyone over 14.

It is one of six bills that haven't moved in the House. Rubio relented slightly Tuesday by permitting a workshop on the legislation.

But it seemed for appearances only, as Rubio's office has been buffeted with phone calls from citizens in recent weeks complaining about the lack of movement.

Harrell and others staged a news conference before the workshop. It served as a platform for a string of people — a hospital executive, a sheriff's deputy and a businessman — to rail that the estimated 1-million undocumented immigrants in Florida are a drain on government and community services and, sometimes, a criminal element.

At the foot of a podium were what Harrell said were 3,000 signed petitions from Floridians demanding the laws.

"The polling data shows clearly that people are concerned about illegal immigration," said Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, who is a sponsor of a bill requiring employers to adopt the federal "e-verify" system.

Brown blames the lack of movement on immigration issues on "powerful interests who exploit the current situation and make money off it," a reference to business sectors that employ undocumented workers.

Despite the high public profile, neither the House nor the Senate have moved on any legislation. Tuesday's House hearing was only a workshop, meaning no votes were taken. But plenty of testimony was heard in the packed committee room.

"Do the right thing and pass these laws. Show the world Florida has a backbone," implored Bill Landes, director of the Florida Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

Ann Lambertson, 44, said her hometown of DeLand had become "inundated" with Mexican laborers, and they have changed the culture.

"My town is now called Little Mexico," she told members of the Committee on State Affairs, describing how store announcements are made in both English and Spanish. "It is as if we are living in another country."

But just as many people spoke against the bills — except provisions calling for enforcement of people who commit crimes — including several South Florida lawmakers.

"I'm a proud immigrant," said Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, who came to the United States from Colombia when he was 12. Immigrants, he said, come in search of the American dream.

"This whole immigration debate wasn't started by immigrants," Zapata said. "This really was started by people here in the United States offering people opportunity. Those are the people who started violating the law."

Fellow Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera, the son of Cuban exiles, appealed to the economic contribution of the workers.

"They are the nannies that are caring for the children. They are the folks that are picking the fruits and the vegetables. They are the folks that are mowing the laws, fixing the roofs, changing the bedpans, washing the dishes and cleaning the toilets. &"

>>fast facts

Immigration bills in 2008 session

• HB 73, by Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs. Requires verification of immigration status of people stopped for a DUI; requires public employer and contractors to participate in federal program to verify status of newly hired employees. Related bill in Senate: SB 624.

• HB 159, by Rep. Sandra Adams, R-Orlando. Requires officials to verify status of anyone who applies for government benefits. Related bill in Senate: SB 388.

• HB 571, by Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville. Requires law enforcement officers, sheriffs, chief correctional officers and circuit court clerks to report suspected undocumented workers who have been arrested or detained. Identical Senate bill: SB 540

• HB 577, by Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers. Allows any undocumented immigrant who serves half a jail sentence to agree to be deported back to their country of origin. Related Senate bill: SB 540.

• HB 821, by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. Requires state agencies that provide benefits to verify citizenship of any person 14 years or older who applies for services. Related Senate bill: SB 388

• HB 1247, by Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. Requires police, sheriff and other criminal intake centers to check status of suspected undocumented immigrants and report offenders. Identical Senate bill: SB 2738.

Immigration bills face long odds in state House 04/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:40pm]
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