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Bill Would Give Broad Immigration Powers To Governor

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Fueled by strong rhetoric and an international refugee crisis, some Florida lawmakers want to give broad immigration oversight to the governor.

Representative Lake Ray of Jacksonville wants to give the governor and attorney general sweeping powers over immigration. Ray’s bill would empower the governor to use military force against refugees and prohibit state and local agencies from resettling them. Ray says refugees, particularly those from Syria, pose a threat to the state.

“It is most imperative that we as the state of Florida not only protect our citizenry, but the valued economy that we have. God forbid that one of these events happen at a Disney or a Universal Studio, and you can put 'For Sale' on the state of Florida,” he said.

But there are a few constitutional issues with Ray’s plan. Critics say the governor can’t regulate immigration; that power lies with the federal government. Terry Coonan specializes in immigration and human rights law.

“The state does not have the ability to decide who can come into and out of a state. That’s simply not the purview of a governor, or of the attorney general, or of the Florida Legislature for that matter,” he said.

Though Governor Rick Scott has spoken against admitting Syrian refugees, he also says it’s not up to him. In response to the questions of legality, Ray points to the Preamble of the Constitution.

“Whether it relates to the federal government, whether it relates to the state government, whether it relates to anything, the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States makes it very simple and it says the reason that we formed the Constitution was to ensure domestic tranquility. It ends with that. There’s no other discussion,” he said.

Besides the constitutionality, opponents have philosophical problems as well. Ray’s bill targets so called ‘invaders’ and ‘restricted persons’, that is, any foreigner coming from a war-torn area. But Terry Coonan has another name for these people: refugees.

“That’s almost every refugee! You know they’re fleeing acts of war and they’re fleeing the very kinds of barbaric human rights violations committed by groups like ISIS. They’re not part of ISIS, they’re fleeing ISIS. So it seems to really confuse who the actors are that would threaten the United States or threaten Florida,” he said.

Mark Schlakman specializes in immigration law, and advised former governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. Schlakman says the militant language of the bill is in line with the rhetoric of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

“There have been different perspectives as to how we should deal with these issues, whether limiting certain populations or religions. I think former Governor Bush suggested that perhaps the United States should focus upon giving relief first to Syrian refugees first who are Christians. Donald Trump later said essentially the same thing but cast it in a different term: no Muslims,” he said.

Terry Coonan says the bill would play right into the hand of ISIS.

“Were we to close the door in particular to Syrian refugees, that would play right into this very simplistic ISIS narrative, that the West and the United States are somehow hostile to Muslims, unwilling to protect Muslims. I think there would be quite a few unintended consequences, were we to pursue I think that kind of circle the wagons mentality,” he said.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed the bill Wednesday. The Senate version has not yet had a hearing.