TALLAHASSEE — A state senator's comments ignited a fierce rebuke from his colleagues Thursday when he said that voters should be screened for citizenship before legislators draw a congressional district to favor Hispanics.
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, rekindled the divisive debate over illegal immigration when he told the Senate committee reviewing a series of congressional redistricting plans that "before we design a district anywhere in the state of Florida for Hispanic voters, we need to ascertain that they are citizens of the United States.
"We all know there are many Hispanic-speaking people in Florida that are not legal,'' he said. "And I just don't think it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow."
"He is calling on a witch hunt before a Hispanic district can be realistically considered,'' said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who noted that Puerto Ricans are by birth U.S. citizens.
Florida will receive two additional congressional seats because of its population growth in the last 10 years that, according to U.S. census data, was largely fueled by the surge in the state's Hispanic population. Hays made the comments in response to a proposal being considered by the Senate Reapportionment Committee that would create a Hispanic-majority district in Central Florida, where the Puerto Rican population has exploded.
While no one on the committee responded to Hays' comment on Tuesday, the remarks were published in an Orlando Sentinel blog, provoking outrage from the Hispanic Caucus.
Several members of the Republican-dominated group met late Wednesday and considered drafting a letter of complaint, said the caucus chairman, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami. Garcia said he asked Hays for an explanation and Cruz and Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, demanded Hays apologize or resign.
Rep. Garcia said Hays' comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of state law. "Either he is ignorant or prejudiced, neither of which are qualifications for him to serve on this committee,'' he said.
Said Rep. Jose Diaz, R-Miami: "I think that it is unfortunate that anyone would question whether or not Hispanic voters are American citizens,'' he said. "It is basic Government 101 that in our country only U.S. citizens can exercise the right to vote."
After criticism intensified Thursday, Hays left a Senate budget hearing early and declined numerous requests for comment.
He told Sen. Garcia that he had called the supervisor of elections office in his home district of Lake County, which confirmed to him that there is no requirement for citizenship to become registered to vote.
But Lake County Supervisor of Elections Emogene W. Stegall said that Hays is mistaken if he believes there a problem with illegal residents registering to vote.
"We've never had a problem with illegal voting in Lake County, no way,'' said Stegall, who has served in the county's election's office for 40 years.
She said that while the state stopped requiring proof of citizenship when it enacted the 1995 Motor Voter law that allows people to register to vote when they obtain a driver's license, requirements for obtaining a driver's license have increased. Drivers now must show three forms of identification to obtain a motor vehicle license, and the license may serve as the sole form of ID to register to vote.
As head of the Hispanic Caucus, Sen. Garcia said he spoke to Hays who told him "he was willing to talk to any member of the Hispanic Caucus and explain what he actually meant." Sen. Garcia said he "was comfortable with that."
But Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she found Hays' comments were "irrelevant" to the redistricting process. She said it would be difficult for the Legislature to draw districts while considering illegal immigrants. The census survey does not ask people to report citizenship, and census officials believe that even legal immigrants traditionally underreport their numbers.
"If we knew who they were and we could adjust for them in our districts, we would know who they were and we could report them to (federal immigration police) INS," Bogdanoff said.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Vierra, however, defended Hays. "I don't think he meant it in a way that was negative or demeaning or detrimental," Altman said. "I think he was trying to state the fact that if we are drawing districts and using large populations that have no legal rights to vote or no ability to vote, then we are not really doing our job in drawing districts that are fair."
Staff writers Adam Smith and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.