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Here we go: ‘Sanctuary cities’ bill hits House floor debate

The arguments surrounding the bill have erupted into protests at the Capitol, sit-ins at district offices and even an ACLU-issued travel warning for travelers and non-citizens to stay away from Florida.

As a bill that would ban so-called “sanctuary cities in Florida is set to be heard on the House floor Tuesday morning, House Democrats are preparing to take their last stand against a bill the party has repeatedly denounced.

The arguments surrounding the bill have erupted into protests at the Capitol, sit-ins at district offices and even an ACLU-issued travel warning for travelers and non-citizens to stay away from Florida. Both immigrant families and “angel families” whose children were killed due to crimes involving undocumented immigrants have given emotional testimony at bill hearings, and each time the bills were heard, committee rooms filled to capacity.

Immigrants, advocates and some faith leaders say the legislation would erode trust in law enforcement and hurt the economy to the tune of $3.5 billion in GDP, according to the American Business and Immigration Coalition. More than 120 business leaders have signed a letter urging lawmakers to stop Senate Bill 168 and House Bill 527.

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina has also rejected the proposals. Last month he said in an interview on Actualidad Radio 1040 AM, “The truth is I’d prefer not to have this job if I have to ask fellow officers to go check where someone came from before helping them.”

Neptune Beach Republican Cord Byrd, the bill’s sponsor, said last month that his proposal is one that simply “recognizes liberty and public safety,” he said.

Attorney General Ashley Moody also supports the bill, saying in a statement last month that “city officials must obey the laws that they swore to uphold.”

Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Moody, said, “the attorney general believes immigration laws should be respected and enforced and she supports the bill in its current form.”

House Democrats have taken a critical approach to the bill, filing around 50 amendments which they say will force Republicans to explore the cost, effects and constitutional issues with the bill.

While some of the language comes from amendments filed over the past few years and some of it is borrowed language from the Senate, the underlying goal is to challenge those who support the bill in spite of “constitutional violations,” said Marisol Samayoa, a spokeswoman for the Florida House Democrats.

“The bill is more about scoring political points than it is about good policy-making,” Samayoa said. “Circuit court judges across the country have sided with the U.S. Constitution over the partisan backers of bills like House Bill 527.”

’The bill would create 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 bills also would give whistle-blower status to officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

Under these bills, 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.

While there is no such thing as a sanctuary city in Florida, the bill would put a definition of “sanctuary city” into law. The bill builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. The proposal also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place.

The House passed a similar ”sanctuary cities” bill last year, but the Senate version never made it to the floor.

The Senate proposal does not include the penalties but gives the attorney general authority to bring civil actions against municipalities that do not cooperate.

Progressives like Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said he hopes by hearing all the amendments on the floor, Republicans will see “that there are consequences” for what the bill entails. He brought up the fact that undocumented people in Florida may even be seeking asylum from the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, a country for which Republican Senators like Manny Díaz Jr. of Miami have been requesting assistance.

Governor Ron DeSantis has also publicly recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela, taking a stance against Maduro.

“This bill escalates deportations of all undocumented immigrants, including those who have not been convicted of violent felonies or serious crimes. It also escalates deportations of Venezuelans seeking asylum from Maduro,” Smith said. “Aren’t Republicans trying to help Venezuelans? What gigantic hypocrites. They don’t even know what they are doing. Or maybe they do?”

Smith filed a few amendments, including one that alters the definition of “state entities” to narrow the scope and taking schools and state employees out of it. Currently, state colleges, universities and other employees would be responsible for showing “best efforts” to cooperate with ICE.

“This legislation is dangerously broad,” Smith said. “Being a snitch for ICE is not their job.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, however, has said complying with ICE is part of the job.

In 2018, he spearheaded a proposal that would allow local law enforcement to keep undocumented immigrants in jail once their charges are resolved until ICE came to pick them up. He said opponents to the bill are “misinformed” and that Pinellas County has been practicing this kind of behavior for years.

“No one’s suing us because we are doing it lawfully,” he said last month.

Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani filed amendments that exempt victims and witnesses of crime from being required to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution, as well as people within the state college and university system.

“It’s personal for me,” said Eskamani, whose parents were Iranian immigrants. “This effort would push people into the shadows … there are situations where there are citizens who are exploiting the undocumented.”

Rep. Javier Fernandez, of South Miami, has an amendment would require that the state reimburse law enforcement for the costs associated with detaining people and complying with requests in the case that the federal government fails to reimburse the full costs within two months.

Another freshman Representative, Dotie Joseph, filed an amendment to require the state to study the fiscal impact on every affected agency and entity, including local governments, tourism and agriculture. The study would have to be finished by 2021, and would have to be shared with legislative leadership.

She says she hopes Republican legislators will “take a pause” and evaluate the impact this legislation will have on local governments and a tourist-driven economy.

Her amendment establishes an automatic repeal, or a sunset on the bill, which can be saved by future legislative review of the study to be completed by 2021. One day in jail costs the state anywhere between $64 to nearly $850 per day, but under most basic ordering agreements with ICE, counties receive only $50 for up to 48 hours of jail time.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s us — the local taxpayers and not the federal government — who will be footing this ridiculous bill for something we do not want,” Joseph, of Miami, said. “But if HB 527 passes, the message the GOP Majority will be sending to communities like mine that do not want this anti-immigrant legislation is clear: the will of the people be damned, and let’s shake down taxpayers while we’re at it.”

Senate Democrats have taken a caucus position against twin bill SB 168. That version of the bill passed out of its last committee and has yet to scheduled for a floor session. The legislative session ends May 3.