DeSantis goes to Panhandle Republican country to sign hardline immigration measure

By: - June 14, 2019 1:26 pm
Florida Immigrant Coalition

Immigration agents detain woman after searching bus. Photo by Florida Immigrant Coalition

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by hard-line GOP U.S. House Rep. Matt Gaetz, traveled to a Republican stronghold in the Panhandle Friday to sign into law Donald Trump-inspired sanctions on any local officials who might refuse to cooperate in federal immigration law enforcement.

The new law (SB 168) gives the governor authority to remove local officials from office if they espouse so-called “sanctuary” policies – meaning they don’t turn people over to immigration authorities. No such sanctuary cities or counties exist in Florida.

But the issue has been a big Florida Republican priority because it’s become a red-meat issue for conservatives, with Trump threatening to move groups of undocumented immigrants from the borders and dump them into the so-called “sanctuary” communities where local officials are supposedly more reticent to become a defacto branch of the federal immigration enforcement system.

Given the Panhandle venue that Desantis chose to hold his public bill signing, the governor was preaching to the Republican choir. Okaloosa County is relatively light in terms of the Hispanics who’d be a key target of the law – 9.2 percent, with even fewer Hispanics in surrounding Panhandle counties. That’s paltry compared to Miami-Dade County, where they number 68.6 percent – although South Florida is home to Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan immigrants who tend toward a more conservative view.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, made note of the planned venue in a tweet Thursday. “Why not sign the bill in Miami?” he asked.

GOP voter registration in Okaloosa runs at 57.5 percent.

Under the new law, Florida’s Attorney General can bring civil actions against local governments that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The Legislature rejected language that would have imposed $5,000-a-day fines for noncompliance.

The new law means that undocumented immigrants could be deported if they come into contact with the criminal justice system. During debate on the bill, supporters argued it would target the “worst of the worst” – although Senate sponsor Joe Gruters acknowledged police could arrest an undocumented immigrant for not having a driver’s license, and at one point suggested that the undocumented should use public transit instead.

However, the law doesn’t require law enforcement to report suspected undocumented immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses to offenses including domestic violence, rape, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, labor contracting fraud, blackmail, extortion, or witness tampering.

The measure was a top priority for Trump protégé DeSantis and Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the state GOP, where his main responsibility is to elect Republicans.

Similar legislation had cleared the House before only to die in the Senate. A big push by DeSantis, who campaigned on the issue, appeared to have made the difference this year. “It almost came to a standstill,” Gruters said. “And then at the end, when it really mattered, he engaged. He stepped up.”

One lone Republican senator – Anitere Flores, who represents Miami-Dade and Monroe counties – voted no following a lengthy and emotional debate. Former Gov. Jeb Bush also came out against the measure.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of the pro-immigrant group New Florida Majority, issued a written statement denouncing the law.

“When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Ron DeSantis ran on an anti-immigrant platform, building Trump’s wall with his kids on a TV commercial, and then pretended to cover it all up with a Latina candidate for lieutenant governor. We never forgot who Ron DeSantis was, so it’s no surprise he would support one of the worst anti-immigrant laws in the country,” she said.

She argued the law will open the door to racial profiling.

“We stand with the Florida Immigrant Coalition and will back legal challenges to this law, Mercado continued. “In the meantime, we will protect our immigrant families and communities who are being unfairly targeted and terrorized by a state that owes so much to immigrants’ economic and cultural contributions.”

A St. Pete Polls survey in April found 52 percent support statewide for a sanctuary cities ban, with only 32 percent opposed. That position appears to have legs – a Sunshine State poll, conducted by the University of South Florida and The Nielsen Co and released in October 2016, turned up similar findings, with 55 percent opposing leniency for undocumented immigrants. Opposition was highest among older Floridians and respondents in Tampa Bay and North Florida.

There’s no telling what the new law will cost Florida’s reputation as a diverse state that welcomes newcomers. However, the New American Economy Research Fund, which has analyzed sanctuary city bills in other states, has predicted significant economic losses to key parts of the state’s workforce in industries like agriculture and construction.

Florida Immigration Coalition Votes, another organization opposing the law, cited the fund’s research in warning the state would lose $76.7 million in federal taxes; $44.7 million in state and local taxes; and $3.5 billion in gross domestic product.

“Rather than a leader working toward the growth and substantial evolution of the state, we’re faced with a governor dead set on meeting his individual political agenda,” the group’s deputy director, Isabel Vinent, said in a written statement.

“America is not a nation that favors politicking over the human condition,” she said. “This is not who we are. Despite the erosion of our Constitution, our people still have rights regardless of their immigration status; whether questioned by a police officer, security guard or even an immigration officer, you still have a constitutional right to remain silent or demand legal representation. We will continue to work to stand for the vision of who we truly are in Florida.”

Last year, at least 17 Florida sheriff’s departments announced a pilot program wherein they agreed to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants in local jails longer than they normally would so that ICE would have more time to respond. Several more sheriff’s departments throughout the state signed onto the program, but the sheriff at one of the state’s biggest counties, Hillsborough’s Chad Chronister, quietly dropped out.

In January 2018, the Department of Justice threatened 23 American cities with subpoenas if they failed to provide documents showing that they were cooperating with federal immigration enforcement officers. West Palm Beach was the only Florida city on that list. City officials responded by suing the government, claiming that is policies complied with federal law. In June 2018, West Palm Beach settled its dispute with the DOJ and notified employees that they were authorized to share the immigration status of people arrested.

Update: Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo issued the following written statement:

“Shame on Gov. DeSantis and Florida Republican legislators who prefer to side with President Trump’s xenophobic agenda rather than Florida business owners, elected officials, law enforcement agents and community members who asked him to veto this bill. SB 168 doesn’t address any issue in our state. It is a xenophobic and hateful bill that would only create harm in our communities of color, negatively impact our economy and prevent thousands of tourists from visiting our beautiful state. Gov. Desantis had the option to put Florida residents first but instead he has put Florida on the map as one of the most anti-immigrant states in our country. This is disgraceful.”, a technology industry backed organization that promotes immigration and criminal justice reform, issued a written statement from its Florida director, Ted Hutchinson:

“We are disappointed that Gov. DeSantis signed SB 168 into law today. This partisan legislation was passed for political gain. It is a solution in search of a problem, considering all Florida jurisdictions currently cooperate with federal law enforcement. Elected officials, business leaders, and law enforcement from both sides of the aisle stood in widespread bipartisan opposition to this bill and we will continue to stand against legislation that will hurt immigrant communities across Florida.”

Phoenix reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this story.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.