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Lawmakers Say Crackdown on Illegal Immigrants Would Have Downside

Tallahassee, FL – Voters liked the get-tough-on-illegal-immigration stance of Republican gubernatorial candidates Rick Scott and Bill McCollum. But as Margie Menzel reports, bipartisan opponents of an Arizona-style immigration law in Florida say Hispanic tourists might stay away from the state - and Hispanic voters might stay away from the polls.

Scott campaigned in support of proposed legislation requiring law enforcement officers to question suspected illegal immigrants. Normally, candidates head toward the mainstream after winning the primary, but political scientist Susan MacManus says, "Not this year."

"That is the normal expectation, but this is a very unusual election," said MacManus. "We have not had a recession of this depth in over 20 years. And people are somewhat turning isolationist, they're becoming more critical of government and Everybody else but them.' It's one of those elections that's somewhat unpredictable, actually."

A Rasmussen poll in July showed 62 percent of Floridians supporting an Arizona-style immigration law, with 24 percent opposed and 14 percent unsure. Susan MacManus:

"Nationally, and I think the Obama Administration and others felt like the public would heavily turn against Arizona. But it really hasn't happened. If anything, support for the Arizona-type law is on the upswing."

Scott won the Republican nomination thanks partly to conservatives who welcomed his push for a crackdown on illegal immigrants, but he lost so badly in Miami-Dade County, a bastion of Latin Americans, that McCollum put off his concession. On the day before Scott won, black and Hispanic lawmakers of both parties held a conference call with reporters, civil rights leaders and clergy. Republican Rep. Steve Bovo of Hialeah, the son of immigrants, said he'd be happy to debate security issues, but...

"If this debate is somehow another vile cover for bigotry and just simply for political purposes," he said, "then I must be honest and share that I'll be greatly disappointed."

Other lawmakers on the call: Democratic Senators Gary Siplin and Tony Hill and Republican Rep. Juan Zapata of Miami. Zapata said such a law would hurt tourism.

"We have a lot of Latin Americans who travel here who come here on tourist visas," he said. "What kind of message do we send to them? Would they be afraid to come here if that happens? They have other options to travel."

International tourists make up just 15 percent of the state's visitors, says Mark Bonn, a professor at Florida State University's Dedman School of Hospitality, but Mexican and Canadian travelers top the list because they're so close. Tourists from South and Central America, he added, often pay top dollar because their summer is our winter.

"Many places in Florida, winter is peak season here," Bonn said. "So that means when they're traveling, they're paying the highest average daily rate throughout the year that's being posted in places like Miami Beach, that are coming up here during a time when the cost of travel is at its highest in South Florida."

Economic issues are tops with nearly all voters of all persuasions, says MacManus, but a large slice of the electorate doesn't understand them.

"So the challenge for Democrats will be to get out the message about the fact that immigrants bring jobs to this state and so do tourists," she said. "For Republicans, they're probably going to have to stress the legal portion of it and be opposed to the illegal. I see the immigration issue as having to be nuanced a bit by both parties."

Zapata, meanwhile, said Hispanic voters would be listening for the meaning beneath the candidates' words.

"I think it will really depend not on what they talk about but the way they talk about this legislation," he said. "If the Republicans continue that angry tone, directed at Hispanics, I think that there will be some consequences, because then people will start to say, Hey, this isn't just about immigration.'"

Zapata said the economy, education and health have historically been the top issues for Hispanic voters, and predicted they'd vote along party lines on immigration.