Florida legislators take on hard-line immigration policies

- The election of President Donald Trump is giving new impetus to Florida state lawmakers in pushing measures seen as tough on immigration but that have gone nowhere in the Legislature in recent years.

Legislators are moving ahead with bills - some of which could face constitutional challenges - that call for harsher sentences for people living in the U.S. illegally, penalties for local governments with "sanctuary" policies, and a halt to the state's voluntary participation in the federal refugee resettlement program.

Even as Trump promises to ramp up enforcement of immigration policies, state lawmakers are pushing for more. Rep. Dane Eagle sees his bill on sentencing as a backup plan in case federal authorities fail in their mission to deport people who commit crimes while in the country illegally.

"The bill keeps them locked up longer so they are not committing crimes and perhaps when the federal government does decide to step up, they will know where they are," Eagles said.

Foreign nationals make up about 4 percent of Florida's inmate population, and the Corrections Department does not break down that figure between those who are documented and those who are not.

Mark Schlakman, a Florida State University law professor, said Eagle's bill would most likely be challenged in court because it would turn a person's immigration status into a criminal enhancement rather than what the federal government says it is: a civil penalty.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Coral Springs who opposes the bill, said the legislation is not based on a need in the law, but rather prompted "on emotion."

The perception that immigrants and refugees without legal permission to live in the U.S. pose a threat has also inspired policy that could affect other groups of people.

If the Legislature decides to pull out of the federal refugee resettlement program, for example, Cubans and Haitians who have been granted special immigration status and victims of human trafficking would lose refugee benefits they receive under the program.

But perhaps the most heated debate is over a measure that penalizes state and local government officials who have adopted policies or practices that block them from fully cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Violations would include not holding detainees who are wanted by federal immigration authorities past their release date, for example.

State Rep. Daisy Baez, a Democrat who immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child, said during a House committee debate that the ban on "sanctuary" policies was a misguided effort based on "paranoia and persecution."

"I achieved the American Dream, I suppose, and if you think this story is unique and beautiful and one of achievement, I have to tell you it's not. It's every immigrant's story," she said holding back tears. "I have never felt as unwanted and as vilified as I do now."

In recent years, similar hard-line immigration policies have stumbled in the Legislature.

Gov. Rick Scott came into office in 2011 promising to adopt Arizona-style immigration laws such as requiring authorities to investigate the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. The effort was defeated after thousands of Floridians flooded the State Capitol in protest.

Three years later, Scott signed pro-immigrant laws that granted an immigrant living in the U.S. without legal permission the right to practice law in Florida and extended in-state tuition rates to children of such immigrants. Republicans are seeking to reverse the latter this year.

Francesa Menes, director of policy from the Florida Immigration Coalition, said there's a nexus between the spike in "anti-immigrant bills" and Trump's candidacy announcement in late 2015.

"With immigration unfortunately it's always about the political climate and what is advantageous to whoever is running, and the Legislature flip-flops on the issue," Menes said. "Is that what our Legislature wants to do again this session? Spend our time and our resources debating and approving bills that separate families and threaten our economy?"

A Florida International University's Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy report estimates that immigrants who live in the U.S. without legal permission contribute $544 million in local and state taxes to Florida's metropolitan areas.

Republican lawmakers have dismissed critics who say some of the immigration measures open up municipalities to litigation for going against federal court rulings or even the U.S. Constitution. Tampa Republican Rep. James Grant urged lawmakers to pass what they think is right, and let the courts tell "us that we are wrong."

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