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Sanctuary cities bill clears early hurdle

Senate Bill 168 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.
Rep. Joe Gruters [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Feb. 19
Updated Feb. 20

TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Joe Gruters’ anti-sanctuary city bill cleared its first of three hurdles Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-2 along party lines to approve the bill, which died in the Senate last year. It was tabled last Monday after long testimony, confusion about wording and Gruters’ obligations elsewhere.

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.

Senate Bill 168 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 for officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

“This bill defines what a sanctuary policy is, and makes sure we hold local governments accountable to make sure they follow the rule of law,” said Gruters, who represents Sarasota. “That is what this country is based on.”

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach and Republican Reps. Cord Byrd and Erin Grall filed similar bills in the Senate and House.

Under this bill, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for “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.

People can be held for up to 48 hours after their set release date under a detainer, allowing time for immigration agents to travel to local jails.

The bill prohibits local governments from hindering communication between ICE and local law enforcement. Gruters said 27 of Florida’s 67 counties have an existing agreement with ICE. He said of those counties, 500 people from 35 nations were deported.

He also listed counties or cities such as Broward County, Key West and St. Petersburg, which he says are not up to par with honoring ICE detainer requests.

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.

“Cooperation works, and it should be required in Florida to protect law-abiding citizens,” he said. “ ... This is about trying to take the bad people and make sure they can’t go back out into society.”

The bill passed without amendments proposed by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat who hoped to block information from schools from being shared with immigration authorities. A push to protect immigrant crime victims or witnesses also failed.

This legislation is not a personal priority for Senate President Galvano, but it should be vetted, he said in a statement last week.

President Pro Tempore David Simmons has indicated to Galvano that he is interested in working with Gruters on this legislation to address issues that caused concern in the Senate in prior years.

Galvano encouraged him to do so, he said.

In January 2017, a newly sworn-in President Donald Trump issued an executive order that threatened to cut federal funding from areas he called “sanctuary jurisdictions.”

The next day, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a directive for Miami-Dade to resume the county’s practice of accepting detention requests from federal immigration agents for people already booked in local jails on unrelated criminal charges.

Miami-Dade Republican Sens. Anitere Flores and René García voted against a similar bill last year. García was term-limited out of the Senate, but Flores is a member of the Senate Rules Committee, which could be the last stop for the bill before a full floor vote.

The new bill authorizes a board of county commissioners to pass ordinances to recover costs for complying with an immigration detainer.

Opponents say immigration reform should instead be left to Congress and that this legislation may endanger immigrants who commit minor offenses like driving without a license. Members of the Florida Immigrant Coalition and other immigrants’ rights and religious groups packed the room to testify against the bill.

Mateo Vuerte, a 16-year-old Venezuelan immigrant from Coral Springs, said after the vote that he worries about what might happen if he is charged with a small offense.

“A couple of weeks ago, my friend got pulled over when he was driving to school without a driver’s license,” Vuerte said. “He’s an undocumented immigrant, and now he has a court date. His family and him just came here to seek asylum.”

An immigration staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, Amien Kacou, said the premise of the bill has “no basis in reality.” The ACLU is involved in two lawsuits regarding ICE detainer cases in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties.

“In terms of the data, the justification, given the high risk of racial profiling, is highly deficient,” Kacou said. “We’ve already discussed the issue of competence and what Floridians would be required to produce to show their citizenship. Are we going to require that people arrested are to have a birth certificate or passport on their person?”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump supporter from the start of his campaign, made clear his stance on sanctuary cities in his inaugural address, which drew loud cheers and claps.

“We will stand for the rule of law,” he said. “We will not allow sanctuary cities. And we will stop incentivizing illegal immigration, which is unfair to our legal immigrants, promotes lawlessness and reduces wages for our blue-collar workers.”

The bill will now go on to be heard in the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee.

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