The Village Square Dinner Series: Will Florida’s new immigration bill help or hurt Florida?

Michael Gennaro

North Bureau Chief



The Florida House and Senate are currently working on a controversial bill that could dramatically change the way immigration laws are enforced in the sunshine state.

Senate Bill 168 would require local governments to make their “best effort” to support federal immigration law. If the bill passes, Florida government would legally be forced to comply with requests from ICE to detain undocumented immigrants in Florida. Any official who violates the new bill could be fined, suspended or expelled from office.

One in five people in Florida is an immigrant. Available data shows that 775,000 undocumented people call Florida home; some estimates have that number as high as one million undocumented persons in the state.

The bill targets so called “sanctuary cities,” cities that welcome refugees, undocumented workers and asylum seekers.

The consequences of such a bill could be enormous, with economic, agricultural and civil rights blowbacks. Opponents of the new bill say that it is written too broadly and they fear ICE showing up in their neighborhood one night to haul off a loved one or neighbor to a detention center.

On May 29, Christian Ziegler, a Republican Sarasota County commissioner, and Democratic Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez got together in the banquet room of Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park to debate the potential merits and pitfalls of Senate Bill 168 in front of a packed room full of concerned citizens.

Commissioner Ziegler does not seem to be concerned about the new bill. He described it as a “no-brainer” to pass.

“The federal government has failed us,” he said. “There are 20 million illegal immigrants in the country.”

Ziegler thinks it’s imperative to the state’s safety for local government to cooperate with ICE detainer requests.

An ICE detainer request flags an undocumented person that is guilty of a serious crime for deportation.

“This bill makes us more safe. It’s respecting the rule of law. It has nothing to do with the rest of the illegal immigrants that happen to be in our country that are law abiding, that aren’t committing crimes.”

“This is totally focused on those individuals who are committing crimes.”

Critics of the new bill argue that the threat of serious crimes committed by undocumented persons in Florida does not warrant such a massive change to immigration law.

Senator Rodriguez is one such critic, and he responded with a passionate rebuke to Commissioner Ziegler.

“First of all, it’s unnecessary,” Rodriguez said of the bill. “Second of all, it is extremely costly. Third, it’s very divisive.”

“It’s very expensive to do this. It’s costly economically. We depend on agriculture and other industries. We thrive on trade and tourism. To the extent that we are sending a signal that Florida is no longer that welcoming place, it does have an economic impact on us,” Rodriguez said.

Indeed, if the bill is implemented, experts warn that the tax cost of implementing the bill could be enormous. Not to mention the economic impact of abandoned jobs because of deportations.

If Florida were to see a ten percent exodus of undocumented immigrants, it is estimated that the state would lose $3.5 billion of GDP. Florida relies on immigrants to do many of the essential jobs in the state.

Commissioner Ziegler was nonplussed.

“This bill is focusing on a sliver of individuals who are engaged with our criminal justice system that have been charged with crimes. If those people are going to pack up and leave our state, that’s going to make us more safe, so I’m all for that,” Ziegler said.

The cost is not just monetary, however.

“There is a human cost. The incidence of reporting crime in immigrant communities—not undocumented—immigrant communities, has gone down significantly,” Rodriguez said. “In an environment where there’s a general fear that you’ll be deported if you come forward, it’s much harder in situations for victims of crime and witnesses to crime to come forward if they’re undocumented or if they have undocumented people in their household.”

“If your home is burglarized, and your neighbor happens to have a parent that is an undocumented immigrant, do you want them thinking twice about calling the cops?”

Senator Rodriguez used the example of sex workers or victims of human trafficking. Would they too be considered criminals under this bill because of their immigration status?

“The problem of the human cost of this makes us less safe,” Rodriguez said. “Enforcing immigration law is fundamentally the federal government’s job.”

“This bill isn’t focused on safety; it’s focused on involving every level of local government” in immigration policy, Rodriguez stated.

Rodriguez believes that many Republicans have thrown their support behind the bill to get ahead politically.

“Many see that there is a political advantage, for lack of a better phrase, to going after immigrants or highlighting immigration enforcement. It’s divisive because it goes beyond simply cost; it’s politics of an ugly nature.”

“It’s hard to make sense of why we would do this,” Rodriguez said.

Ziegler stuck to his guns, however, and scoffed at the idea that Republicans are using the illegal immigration debate as a political football.

“This is one of the few times that the federal government is actually being proactive,” Zeigler said.

Ziegler sees the bill as a utilitarian measure; after all, Ron DeSantis was open about his disdain for sanctuary cities when he ran for Florida Governor last year. If there were no support for such a bill, DeSantis would not have emerged victorious, according to Ziegler.

“Elections have consequences. Ron DeSantis is addressing an issue, being proactive and delivering on a campaign promise,” Ziegler stated.

‘That’s why his (DeSantis’) approval numbers are through the roof right now.”

Ziegler reiterated that the bill would not target ordinary people, even if they are undocumented.

“If you’re an illegal immigrant, and you get arrested, ICE will review those files. They only put about 15 percent of the criminal illegals that go to jail with a detainer request” for deportation, according to Ziegler.

“It’s the most serious of the serious criminals. That’s who we’re focused on with this bill.”

Throughout the debate, Commissioner Ziegler repeatedly hammered home his belief that the bill would make the country safer, and that he was willing to eat the monetary cost of implementing the bill to strengthen public safety.

Rodriguez countered that it is not a local government’s responsibility to enforce federal immigration law.

“Looking at the text of the bill, it’s so broadly written, you could have a problem. An example that I just came up with is an EMT, right? Let’s say an EMT is showing up, and they just have a policy of not interrogating people about their immigration status. That’s not a thing they do,” Rodriguez said.

“If they’re in a part of the state where the sheriff says, ‘Hey, when you go in there, make sure you look at everybody’s papers.’ And if they say, ‘You know what? We just don’t do that,’ well that’s a custom that impedes sharing information with law enforcement,” Rodriguez said.

Under Rodriguez’s example, firefighters, EMTS and other local actors could be forced to enforce immigration law, even if that is not usually a part of their duties.

“It will embolden individuals who already have an intent of trying to insert the immigration issue everywhere,” Rodriquez explained.

In addition, Rodriguez said the broad language of the bill could change how it is enforced around the state.

“In places like Miami-Dade, my expectation is that this very broad language could be interpreted more narrowly. It may be interpreted in a manner closer to what Commissioner Ziegler was saying, that this is about people who are a threat to the community.”

“But I think in other parts of the state, this will be used in a very different way, to try to involve every local agency, potentially, in the enforcement of immigration law, and in ways that I think most of us don’t think is appropriate,” Rodriguez explained.

Another criticism is what constitutes an undocumented immigrant. Some undocumented people are concerned that they will be flagged for deportation for minor violations such as parking tickets or traffic violations. They do not trust that the bill will only target “the worst of the worst.”

The fear is that undocumented immigrants who are following the law could be detained and potentially deported.

Ziegler believes that it will stop violent criminals from being re-released into the community, and cited examples of undocumented immigrants that have committed murders and other violent crimes because local actors have not cooperated with ICE. The bill would assure that those people remained in custody, according to Ziegler.

The constitutionality of the bill has also been put into question. Opponents of the bill say that it violates the tenth amendment, which clearly states that the federal government cannot force a local government to preform federal duties, such as immigration enforcement.

Ziegler, however, says that the bill is a state law and does not violate the constitution.

At the end of the night, the panel opened to members of the audience to ask questions and state their concerns about the bill.

One student, a DACA recipient, was terrified of losing everything he had worked for. Although he is undocumented, America is all he has ever known. A high school student took the microphone and wondered if her friends and loved ones would be deported. Others still were concerned about corruption or racial profiling.

If the bill is implemented, it will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2019.

“I don’t think any of us really know” how this will be implemented, Senator Rodriguez warned.

Photo courtesy of Broward College

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