Florida Republican leaders have begun crafting anti-illegal-immigrant legislation modeled after an Arizona law that has incited widespread protests and fueled national and international debate over U.S. immigration policies.
Under the proposed bill, police would have broad power under state law to ask suspects for proof of legal residency, said Rep. William Snyder, a Republican from Stuart who plans to introduce the legislation in November.
"We have significant components from the Arizona bill that I plan to incorporate," he said. "We have the beginnings of it."
The effort, which would be filed for consideration during the March legislative session, is already drawing broad support within the GOP.
In an election year shaped by anti-incumbency sentiment, majority leaders in the Florida Senate and House said a new approach is needed to address the federal government's failure to temper illegal immigration.
The effort has the backing of both leading Republican gubernatorial candidates — businessman Rick Scott and Attorney General Bill McCollum.
In fact, McCollum's office is helping to draft the bill.
Snyder, a former police officer, said the proposed legislation is needed to protect undocumented immigrants, who are vulnerable to abusive employers and violent criminals.
"This is a human right issue," he said. "They don't enjoy the same rights and privileges that you and I do. The solution is to enforce the laws that currently exist and to discourage people from coming here to 'find a better life' when in fact they just come here and are victimized."
Immigrant advocates and Hispanic lawmakers alike called the measure an unconstitutional assault on minority communities.
"The reaction is, 'What? This is ridiculous,' " said Neelofer Syed, a Tampa immigration lawyer who hails from Pakistan. "It is supposed to be that you are legal until you are proven guilty. This law is like, 'we think you are guilty unless you establish that you are innocent.' "
Rep. J.C. Planas, a Republican from Miami, called it an election year stunt.
"I don't understand how anyone can think the Arizona law is good for Florida," said Planas, chairman of the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus. "It is a huge waste of police resources to start doing these things."
Senate and House leaders said immigration reform is ripe for passage.
"What we want to do is encourage legal immigration and discourage illegal immigration," said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who cautioned that any changes will be shaped by how the Arizona law is put into practice after it takes effect next month.
Republican leaders in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Minnesota, South Carolina and Michigan have made similar vows to mirror Arizona's immigration law, amid growing criticism that the federal government has not adequately protected the nation's borders.
Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have filed legal challenges to the legislation and President Barack Obama's administration is expected to follow suit.
Critics questioned why Florida lawmakers would consider replicating Arizona's untested immigration strategy while legal challenges are still pending.
"Rep. Snyder's proposal solves nothing, exploits public concern over immigration and just creates new problems," said Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU Florida.
The tension has become a rallying point for candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has highlighted her Republican opponents' support of the law in stump speeches. "She was opposed to the law in Arizona,'' said campaign spokeswoman Kyra Jennings. "She believes it unfairly discriminated against American citizens. She would veto that type of legislation."
Championing tougher immigration laws is a risky election strategy, said George Gonzalez, a University of Miami political science professor.
"It is a way to channel people's anger and frustration about the labor market onto a group and to take advantage of it, too," he said.
But it could also anger Hispanic voters, an important constituency in Florida's increasingly diverse political landscape, Gonzalez said.
Florida's estimated illegal immigrant population ranks third in the nation. Arizona places seventh. But while Florida's undocumented population has dropped by 10 percent during the past decade, Arizona's climbed by 42 percent.
"None of this is foolproof," Gonzalez said. "It could blow up in the Republicans' faces either way."
Snyder said he doesn't want his law to stir up the same accusations of racism that hounded Arizona's decision.
His law would be refined, he said, because it would only allow law enforcement officials to inquire about immigration status during a potential arrest or traffic violation. In Arizona, officers are required to request legal documentation during any lawful stop if "reasonable suspicion" exists.
Coming up with the precise language will be difficult, conceded Snyder, who recently defended his views on Fox News. "Reasonable suspicion makes people nervous," he said.
But he vowed his final draft would apply equally to all illegal immigrants, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. "I've never in my 32 years been accused of using the 'N' word or being racially motivated," he said. "No one who knows me would say I have a racist bone in my body."
Cristina Silva can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846.