Legislature to Consider Tougher Immigration Measure

Tallahassee, FL – The Arizona law targeting illegal immigrants will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that hasn't stopped one Florida lawmaker from drafting a similar measure. Gina Jordan reports the state Legislature will take up the proposal during the regular session that begins in March.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton, recently filed Senate Bill 136. He says he doesn't think it's that much like the Arizona law because he disagrees with racial profiling and making immigrants carry their documentation papers.

"I don't think that they should be stopped on the way home from work every day because somebody doesn't like the color of their hair or the color of their skin," Bennett said. "I'm more interested in not throwing a lot of people out of the country as much as I'm interested in making sure that we throw the bad ones out - the people who are involved in drugs, hard crime, gangs, that type of thing. I think we want to make sure that our law enforcement has a way to get them out of the country faster."

The bill would require law enforcers to request citizenship information under certain circumstances. Bennett admits that's a broad description and expects the measure to go through a lot of changes during committee stops. But Subhash Kateel thinks this is nothing more than a racial profiling bill. He's an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition based in Miami.

"The only way you could presume someone's illegal in the country is if you have a
perception of who looks foreign," Kateel said. "In a place like the state of Florida, where we have tons of folks that are, for example, Puerto Ricans that are born U.S. citizens or Cubans that are lawful in the country, you are going to have a scenario - I guarantee you, I promise you - where tons of folks that are completely legal in the country are going to be forced to prove that they are here legally."

Regarding Bennett's claim that he is mainly interested in targeting criminal elements, Kateel says there is nothing in the bill that would make Florida any safer, and it could have the opposite effect.

"If immigrants believe that every time they call the police, the police would ask them for their papers so they stop calling, what would that do to the crime rates in Orlando or in Miami-Dade or Broward?" he said. "Would it increase crime or decrease crime? I think it would increase crime."

Kateel points out that one's legal status is not as simple as being documented or undocumented; there are a variety of legal ways to be in the U.S. He thinks Bennett's bill will just wind up taking money away from the state, as happened in Arizona, where a boycott resulted in millions of dollars in lost convention

"His first draft bill wasn't a bill about jobs, it wasn't a bill about restoring our economy, it wasn't a bill about stopping foreclosures, it was an immigration bill," Kateel said. "There is no way you can make a racial profiling bill and not racially profile. This is a racial profiling bill; that is all the bill will do, and in the process of racial profiling, you're not just scaring away people that you perceive to be bad, you're scaring away tourists, you're scaring away investors, and you're scaring away people that actually put food on our tables in the state of Florida."

The men agree that the legal status of any suspect under arrest is checked, and since traffic violators are asked to show their drivers' license, Bennett says that can't be called profiling. He also thinks, given the state's budget problems, that it makes sense to deport non-violent offenders before their sentences are up. Bennett says Florida currently houses about 2,000 inmates who are here illegally and who committed non-violent crimes.

"They're going to be deported when they're released anyhow, so why don't we release them now?" he said. "When you look at costing $20,000 a year versus a $700 plane ticket, I'm not overly bright, but I can do the math, and when you start adding that up, $700 versus $20,000, then you multiply it by, say, 3,000 people, it doesn't take you long to figure out how we're going to save close to a
billion dollars."

Bennett thinks the Cuban community will support the measure since most of them are here legally and don't want to get lumped in with those who are not. He says he is also concerned about the children who are impacted and thinks there should be a way to avoid breaking up families.

"They're here. They're paying the taxes, they own a house, they've got kids, they're raising children. Those kids are in school. I think we ought to figure out something else; I don't quite know what it is."

Critics like Kateel would much rather see changes made at the federal level. A recent vote on the DREAM Act failed in the U.S. Senate. The measure would have provided a path to legal status for minors who've lived here for five years, graduate from high school or the equivalent, and who join the military or go to
college. Florida Sen. George LeMieux voted against the bill, saying in a statement that border security needs to be addressed first.