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‘Sanctuary cities’ debate not over in Florida, and time is running out

The House version builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. The Senate does not.

TALLAHASSEE -- Like the turning of a calendar page, the Senate version of a proposal to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida was heavily amended Wednesday morning, transforming overnight into what looks nearly identical to the House’s harsher version of the bill.

In the early hours of the morning as April 30 became May 1, the race to achieve what is one of the governor’s most hardline Republican campaign promises crawled toward a finish line and after hours of excruciatingly emotional debate, a proposal was adopted in the House at around 2 a.m.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Cord Byrd will likely be voted on later Wednesday for the third and final time.

At their core, both the Senate and House bills 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.

Under the 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.

But the House version builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. It also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place, an “anonymous complaint’ web portal through the attorney general for any person to submit an alleged violation of the policy and the threat of removal of state grant funding for entities with so-called “sanctuary policies.”

And the Senate version included a few amendments that soften the bill beyond what House Republicans care to agree with.

The House has put forward a similar bill over the past few years, but it has always died in the Senate. This year the bill has the governor’s fervent support. Banning “sanctuary cities” in Florida was not only a hardline Republican campaign promise of Gov. Ron DeSantis, but a key talking point in his inaugural address and State of the State speech, too.

“I am more confident because of the governor’s interest in it,” Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican said. “The fact that we made it this far is monumental progress.”

To be clear, there are no municipalities in Florida that now have sanctuary policies.

House Speaker José Oliva, who earlier this week denounced the Senate version, said he was happy with the final product that will be up for a vote in his chamber.

He told reporters Wednesday morning that he was pleased the revised version passed because it stripped the bill of an amendment to exempt the Department of Children and Families from being forced to comply with ICE.

“The purpose of the bill is that we have to abide by the rule of law,” the Miami Lakes Republican said. “Having an exemption, particularly one that says that a department within this very government is exempt from that is a tragic irony. If this is something that we’re going to do, we are going to do it correctly.”

He said he is confident that a bill will get to the governor’s desk by the close of session, which is supposed to end May 3.

The two chambers have jockeyed over what will be the final product — a feud typically reserved for closed-door negotiations. The match has spilled into the public with just days left in the 2019 legislative session, a culmination of months of emotional office visits by immigrant families, protests, prayer vigils and even travel warnings by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill’s final moments coincided with a Monday order by President Donald Trump, who imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers at the Mexican border, including application fees, work permit restraints and direction that cases in immigration courts be settled within 180 days.

The clock is ticking as session wanes to a close Friday but if history is any indication, lawmakers will continue to debate for hours as they teeter on the cusp of enacting one of the nation’s strictest laws against “sanctuary cities” — with both sides contemplating language they say was written by the governor’s staff itself.

House Democrats tried to take advantage of the time crunch Tuesday night, as they debated at length over an amendment to a larger healthcare bill that would put a proposed cap on THC levels for smokable medical marijuana.

But at 11:50 p.m. the bill was temporarily postponed and Oliva told the chamber they’d be taking up the Senate’s version of the “sanctuary cities” bill.

“I hope that we can get through this before it’s time to be back in here tomorrow morning,” he said.

Because the bill was taken up before midnight, Democrats said they fell 10 minutes short of killing the contentious bill, as House rules maintain that a bill cannot be heard twice in one day. If the bill were to be taken up twice, session would have to “gavel out” and then “gavel back in” for a new floor session, according to House spokesman Fred Piccolo.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who pushed back against THC caps when the bill came up in Health and Human Services Committee, said he thought the Democrats would have been able to stop the bill if they continued the questions past midnight.

“Hard-line immigration laws will have a terrible impact on our state. I had a chance to kill the bill by running out the clock, so I went for it,” the Orlando Democrat said. “It almost worked. I like cannabis almost [as much] as I like to talk so it was a win-win.”

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said he is so torn on his vote that he sent the bill language to an unrelated Hillsborough County attorney to look at the language — an action he’s never taken in his 22-year career. Lee said he hopes that the attorney will clarify the bill’s implication and cut through the “really, really emotional” debate surrounding the proposal.

Lee said he faces pressure from the dwindling clock as well as a governor who insists the Legislature follow through on one of his premier campaign promises.

“In addition to the normal pressure you feel about having to make a decision on a piece of legislation, these are relationships that go back decades and a governor who would like to see something responsible pass,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what that is, and we’re going to run out of time here.”

If the new, House-like version of the Senate bill passes Wednesday, it will be sent over to the Senate for one last vote. Only after the Senate votes to approve the bill can it be sent for signing by DeSantis.