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Ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ to become Florida law after anguished debate

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on banning ‘sanctuary cities’ has held meetings all week with Republicans who say they were on the fence.
Senator Ben Albritton, R- Wauchula congratulates Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, after Senate passage of Gruters Sanctuary Cities bill. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 2
Updated May 2

TALLAHASSEE — After a week of legislative back-and-forth and the stress of rapidly diminishing time weighing on both chambers, the bill to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” is headed to the governor’s desk.

The controversial bill’s passage comes after months and months of heightened emotional discourse, protests and deals made among stakeholders wishing to appease the Republican base.

Senate Bill 168 passed 22-18 in the Senate and 68-45 in the House.

The final vote tally in the Florida Senate on Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, Sanctuary Cities bill. The bill passed the Senate, Thursday, May 2, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Under the bill, local law enforcement and other state agencies would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detains 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 path to passing a bill was not a straight one, as the state’s two chambers have jockeyed for days over what will be the final product — a feud typically reserved for closed-door negotiations.

Instead of taking up the House’s amended, more punitive version of the Senate bill Thursday, sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters put forward an amendment to bring it back to the softer Senate version. The amendment passed along party lines except for Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and went back to the House for yet another vote.

The House stood in recess until the Senate voted, and took up the bill for their own vote shortly after.

Business groups have also come out against the bill, citing the toll it would take on a state that relies on the labor immigrants provide and taxes they pay. American Business Immigration Coalition urged the governor to veto the bill in statement Thursday, co-signed by billionaire Miami healthcare magnate and prominent political booster Mike Fernandez and former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.

“[Senate Bill 168] will transform every government agency, university and law enforcement agency into federal immigration officers,” they wrote. “We will keep working in Florida and in other states to treat our immigrants with fairness and decency and to make it possible for them to contribute to the economy and pay taxes.”

If the bill is sent to the governor while the Legislature is in session, he has seven days to sign or veto it. If the bill is sent to the governor when the Legislature is not in session, he has 15 days to sign or veto it.

The governor does not have to sign a bill for it to become law if he lets the deadlines lapse.

The Senate’s amendment brought the bill back to most of its original language but stripped the bill of an amendment to exempt the Department of Children and Families from being forced to comply with immigration authorities, an amendment put forth and passed by Miami Sen. José Javiér Rodríguez last week.

While Democrats cheered, Republicans said the DCF amendment was a “poison pill” that shouldn’t have been passed, as it creates a “sanctuary agency” within state government. The amendment, among dozens of others put forward again by Rodríguez, did not pass Thursday. Also stripped from the bill were punitive House proposals to fine agencies or municipalities up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place, create “anonymous complaint” web portal through the attorney general for any person to submit an alleged violation of the policy and threaten the removal of state grant funding for entities with so-called “sanctuary policies.”

Over the course of the legislative session, 244 amendments were filed across both chambers — 192 in the Senate and 52 in the House.

The amendments were mostly filed, refiled and debated heavily by Democrats, who spent hours presenting proposals to exempt schools, emergency responders and firefighters from being implicated under the bill. They asked the bill to protect people seeking asylum, “dreamers,” those in the country with temporary protected status, crime victims and witnesses and military veterans.

They proposed law enforcement complete eight hours of implicit bias training and asked that the state provide therapy for any children separated from their families as a result of this bill.

On the floor, Democrats brought up the fact that in 2014, lawmakers passed a law to give undocumented children in-state tuition at public colleges. In 2013, they voted to grant those children driver’s licenses as well, a policy that was vetoed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

In their floor debate, they brought up their constituencies and asked Republicans to consider the same. About 20 percent of Florida’s population is foreign-born.

Impassioned stories from both sides

Rep. Cindy Polo, of Miramar, gave a tear-filled speech about her immigrant parents, who came from Colombia on a visa and overstayed it.

“Is that who we are referring to as criminals?” she said on the House floor.

Republicans on the floor last week told stories about their own immigration stories, like Palm Bay Rep. Randy Fine’s legislative aide who spent five years trying to come to American from Russia, or Land O’Lakes Rep. Ardian Zika who fled ethnic discrimination in Kosovo. They said a vote down on the bill is disrespectful to the people who came to America legally.

None of the Democrats’ amendments passed Thursday.

“Was there not one amendment offered that could have made a bad bill better?” asked Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

“In order to land this plane, this is the bill that we have to pass,” Gruters said.

Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, said he liked the watered-down Senate version more than the harsher House version but was wholly disappointed.

“This a better bill than the House bill, but it’s like comparing having your leg gnawed by a wolf rather than grizzly bear,” he said. “One day, the Democratic caucus will occupy the front of this room. And one days this law will be stripped from statute.”

A similar bill to ban “sanctuary cities” passed the House last year, but it died in the Senate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned on banning sanctuary cities as a hardline Republican priority, has pushed hard for legislation this session. Banning “sanctuary cities” not only a campaign promise but a key talking point in his inaugural address and State of the State speech.

During a National Day of Prayer event at the Capitol Thursday, Gruters showed up while the Senate was in recess. He interrupted DeSantis and they left to meet behind closed doors.

The governor took no questions from the press, and security barred media from entering the elevator behind the governor.

DeSantis says thanks

In a statement Thursday night, he said he was thankful that the Legislature delivered on one of his biggest asks as governor.

“Earlier this year, I asked the Florida Legislature to present me with a bill this session that upholds the rule of law and addresses sanctuary cities and counties in Florida,” he said. “Local law enforcement agencies can and should work with the federal government to ensure that accountability and justice are one in our state.”

DeSantis has held meetings all week with Republicans who say they were on the fence about the set of bills. Sen. Tom Lee, who has a history of defying party lines, sat down with the governor Wednesday afternoon.

The Thonotosassa Republican said he was 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.

The two-time Senate President said he faced pressure from the dwindling clock as well as a governor who insists the Legislature follow through on one of his premier campaign promises. He voted “no” on the bill and then, shaking his head, changed his vote to a “yes.”

“We’re not legislative sociopaths here,” he said on the Senate floor. “We have the ability to care, to reach out to affected parties and do what we can to put plain words on paper that say what we mean ... All we can do is make sure that people who are here breaking laws don’t get to continue to stay.”

Opponents to the bill like local immigrants’ rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Business Immigrant Coalition have said for months that the bill language is far too broad and would have unintended consequences. While amendments came up to address the scope of the bill, none passed.

Opponents have also said that federal immigration enforcement is “notoriously unreliable,” citing the near deportation of a U.S. citizen in the Florida Keys and an ACLU study that claims federal immigration authorities sent detainer requests for 420 Miami-Dade inmates that the county had listed as U.S. citizens. The ACLU even sent out a travel advisory, warning people not to travel to Florida if Legislature passes the ban.

“This anti-immigrant bill will have devastating impacts on communities of color, including U.S. citizens and those who are lawfully present in the United States,” said Kara Gross, an attorney for ACLU. “It requires all local law enforcement to blindly carry out unlawful and unreliable detainer requests, regardless of whether the individual has committed a crime, let alone a violent crime.”

In an op-ed recently, agriculture commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried wrote that the bill is “divisive rhetoric on the backs of immigrants. “

“What we do need — if we’re serious about putting America and Florida first — is comprehensive reform that fixes our flawed immigration system and allows people coming to pursue the American dream a fair opportunity to do so,” she wrote.

A business cost?

Business groups have also come out against the bill, citing the toll it would take on a state that relies on the labor immigrants provide and taxes they pay. American Business Immigration Coalition urged the governor to veto the bill in statement Thursday, co-signed by billionaire Miami healthcare magnate and prominent political booster Mike Fernandez and former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.

“[SB 168] will transform every government agency, university and law enforcement agency into federal immigration officers,” they wrote. “We will keep working in Florida and in other states to treat our immigrants with fairness and decency and to make it possible for them to contribute to the economy and pay taxes.”

If the bill is sent to the governor while the Legislature is in session, he has seven days to sign or veto it. If the bill is sent to the governor when the Legislature is not in session, he has 15 days to sign or veto it.

The governor does not have to sign a bill for it to become law if he lets the deadlines lapse.

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