Florida ‘sanctuary cities’ bill clears second hurdle, but it gets ugly

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee voted 5-3 along party lines in the final minute of the meeting, approving the much-contested Senate Bill 168, which died in the Senate last year.
Sen. Joe Gruters talks about his bill, Senate Bill 168, that would ban "sanctuary cities" in Florida. [Samantha J. Gross | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau]
Sen. Joe Gruters talks about his bill, Senate Bill 168, that would ban "sanctuary cities" in Florida. [Samantha J. Gross | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau]
Published March 12, 2019|Updated March 13, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- After heated back-and-forth with committee Democrats, Sen. Joe Gruters’ controversial anti-sanctuary city bill cleared its second of three hurdles Tuesday. After the vote advocates for the immigrant communities erupted into shouts of “shame on you,” and many were escorted out of the committee room by security.

Dozens of advocates left the room and formed a prayer circle “for our undocumented brothers and sisters,” one said. Others waited to thank Democrat senators for their push back.

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee voted 5-3 along party lines in the final minute of the meeting, approving the much-contested Senate Bill 168, which died in the Senate last year.

While there is no such thing as a sanctuary city in Florida, committee chair Sen. Tom Lee said defining it in law is important for addressing a potential sanctuary city in the future.

“Legislation is typically an effort to address an existing problem or it’s filed in anticipation of a potential problem down the road,” the Thonotosassa Republican said. “In this case having a definition might be helpful. Whether we have one today or not by this definition, sometimes it simplifies.”

Lee added that a burgeoning immigrant population is “becoming a liability.”

“We’re essentially pregnant with millions and millions of people who come here … most of them to make a better life. But they’re not here legally,” he said. “People commit crimes and are becoming a liability to the lawful citizens of our state.”

Committee members Sens. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa), Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) and Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) fired back at Gruters.

Cruz pointed out that studies used in the bill analysis are cited as anti-immigrant hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Taddeo asked Gruters if he’d be willing to apply this bill to only those who commit a felony. Stewart asked why the bill is not called a “sanctuary city” bill.

To their questions, Gruters said the federal government “doesn’t take into effect whether you’ve committed a felony or a misdemeanor. My advice is if you’re not breaking the law, this bill will not impact you whatever.” He added that he did not name the bill, and wasn’t asked by staff to weigh in.

The bill creates rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill also would give whistleblower status to officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

Under this bill, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.

The proposed policy does not apply to the release of education records and does not require law enforcement to provide ICE with information related to a victim or witness to a criminal offense.

“This is about public safety,” said Gruters, who represents Sarasota. “This is about making sure these criminal, illegal aliens have a safe transfer in the secure environment of where they’re at.”

Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, filed the same language from the bill he co-sponsored last year but has said his new role as leader of the party will boost support for the bill. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Republican Reps. Cord Byrd and Erin Grall filed similar bills in the Senate and House.

Kara Gross, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, said the bill will disproportionately affect people who are not dangerous because those who are detained in jail — not prison — have not yet been convicted of a crime. The bill also applies to people who are being released from jail, meaning they are likely not considered dangerous enough to be held without bail.

“There are lots of reasons people, and often disproportionately people of color and immigrants or perceived immigrants, end up in jail for non-violent minor offenses,” Gross said. “Driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, underage drinking, graffiti, possession of small amounts of marijuana … they haven’t been convicted of anything at all, let alone a violent offense.”

Opponents to the bill say that the language also creates a rift in community policing, making Florida residents feel more endangered than protected.

Taddeo, who pressed Gruters on a series of questions without answers, said the proposal is all about “political points.”

“A lot of political parties like to get some points,” she said. “But this is about people’s lives and how this can hurt them.”

Miami Democrat José Javier Rodríguez failed to pass similar amendments the last time the bill was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He said the bill creates a “phantom” of sanctuary cities for political purposes and that the heightened political rhetoric is aimed at recruiting local governments to enforce immigration law.

Rodríguez pointed out a political campaign ad from Gov. Ron DeSantis, which portrayed him “building a wall” with his young children.

DeSantis, a Donald Trump supporter from the start of his campaign, made clear his stance on sanctuary cities in his recent state of the state address. He told the crowd that Florida “will not be a sanctuary state" and that he “won’t tolerate sanctuary cities that actively frustrate law enforcement by.”

“When we think about what kind of community we want to start building, we should be focusing on how to pull our community together,” Rodríguez said. “This goes in the exact opposite direction.”

Tomas Kennedy, the political director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition activist group, called the legislation “xenophobic” and “inhumane.”

Kennedy pointed toward “economic disaster” that would result in the bill’s passing, including a negative impact to the tourism and agriculture industries that lean so heavily on immigrant workers.

“Some Florida legislators are ignoring lessons of the past and once again attempting to pass anti-immigrant legislation that threatens the well being of immigrant families and the economy of Florida,” he said.

Before the committee meeting Lee said in an interview that he would try and let as many people speak as possible, and honor the requests from those who drove far distances.

Testimony lasted a matter of minutes. The five speakers included three men who identified themselves as “nationalists” — one speaking on behalf of E-Verify — and then two women speaking against the bill.

Under current law, an ICE detainer is simply a request — not a requirement — for state law enforcement to comply. While there are no official sanctuary cities in Florida, Gruters said counties or cities such as Broward County, Key West and St. Petersburg are not up to par with honoring ICE detainer requests. He did not cite any specific examples.

“We have no idea what Sen. Gruters is referencing,” said Ben Kirby, a spokesman for St. Petersburg, which doesn’t have a jail, in a text.

Though the bill no longer includes punitive measures for places who maintain “sanctuary” policies, Gruters said those counties or municipalities would “be handled” by Attorney General Ashley Moody.

“This is about making sure the local areas don’t violate the law by saying they can’t cooperate with the laws that exist,” Gruters said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about this bill, there’s a lot of fear mongering going on. This is about doing what’s right for Florida.”