Racial Profiling Takes Center Stage in Florida Immigration Fight
Around the State
Immigration reform is gearing up for a fight.
On St. Patrick's Day, more than 300 people identifying themselves as immigrants made their first stand on the crowded steps of the Old Capitol.
"Somos Florida!" they shouted in Spanish to a cadre of reporters and onlookers. The English translation quickly followed: "We are Florida!"
The protest, organized by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, with heavy support from the AFL-CIO, was primarily designed to target Rep. William Snyder's bill on enforcement of immigration laws. What is largely being called an Arizona-style immigration policy, HB 7089, has pitted immigrants and those sympathetic to their situation against Snyder, R-Stuart.
"We're here to fight!" said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
"If I can pick your oranges and strawberries, why is it I cannot be included in the population of this great state?" she questioned.
But Snyder says The Florida Immigration Enforcement Act really isn't an Arizona-style bill, but a Florida-style bill.
"We have similarities to the Arizona bill," Snyder said, "but we have some fundamental differences. Law enforcement officers in Arizona were allowed to determine immigration status during 'any lawful stop.' But in Florida, status could be determined only during criminal investigations. That's very significant."
Snyder says he's spoken with several interest groups, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as they drafted the legislation.
Other provisions in HB 7089 include:
• Prohibiting the use of race, color, or national origin in enforcement.
• Requiring every employer to use the federal E-Verify system.
• Prohibiting companies from knowingly employing an unauthorized alien, authorizing complaints to a licensing agency that an employer has violated the law.
It also increases the maximum penalties when an undocumented resident commits a crime.
Despite the provision that prohibits officers from using race, color or national origin when enforcing the law, the stiffer penalties for those who do, and the provision that status inquiries happen during criminal investigations, racial profiling is a big concern for many across the state.
Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, stood at the front of the pack with his passport hanging around his neck. He told the crowd his own immigration story of how he arrived in the U.S. from Cuba 51 years ago.
"Since we started the session, I've been carrying my passport," said Garcia. "If somebody stops me and asks me for my papers, what am I going to show them? I don't have a green card. I'm a citizen. So I'm wearing my passport."
One strong supporter of the Florida Immigration Enforcement Act, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, says he understands the protestors' concern over the potential for racial profiling, but disagrees that HB 7089 doesn't address that concern.
"Racial profiling has been a problem long before Arizona," said Workman, "But I think people understand the issue and most police officers stand high above it these days."
Workman argues legislators can't let the fear of a few bad apples, those law enforcement officers who might use racial profiling tactics, deter them from addressing the problem of illegal immigration.
"The feds aren't doing their job," said Workman. "And when the fed is supposed to do something and doesn't, it falls on the states."
While Rep. Garcia's passport-around-the-neck gimmick helps reinforce his anti-racial-profiling stance, the reality will likely be less dramatic.
Because of processes involved with getting a Florida driver's license, Workman says it would be very difficult for an illegal resident to get one. And if someone stopped by an officer couldn't produce a license, a name and address could quickly verify that the person does have a license and likely a legal status.
"Law enforcement is expected to make every effort to determine citizenship," said Workman. "And the driver's license process is pretty thorough."
Still, many in Wednesday's rally argue the state shouldn't be seeking to criminalize the immigrants; rather, they should find alternative ways of dealing with the problem.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-Palm Beach Lakes, suggests going after businesses that are hiring illegal immigrants and creating unfair competition for other businesses. But that provision is already in Snyder's bill.
"It's unfortunate that he hasn't read the bill," said Snyder, "because the bill clearly goes after employers that are using undocumented workers. That's a very strong piece in the bill."
While opponents may be vocal about their opposition to The Florida Immigration Enforcement Act, the bill appears to have support among Republicans and is expected to survive the House. But with more wild-card legislators in the Senate, its fate is less certain.
Lane Wright may be reached at Lane@sunshinestatenews.com or (561) 247-1063.