By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The Senate on Friday passed legislation outlawing so-called sanctuary city policies in Florida, reversing course on a politically charged issue that it has blocked for the past three years.
In a nod to one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities, a sharply divided Senate voted to force local law enforcement agencies to fully comply with federal immigration authorities, and to punish officials who fail to do so.
Democrats and Republicans squared off during the two-hour debate, as immigrant families opposed to the proposal watched from the public gallery.
Hispanic Democrats, some of them speaking in Spanish and in English, tried to convince their Senate colleagues that the legislation is an affront to immigrants.
“We are from this country. We are from this land of God,” Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said in both languages.
The support of the Republican governor and the political clout of Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, propelled the measure over the finish line with just a single Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, joining Democrats in opposition to the proposal.
Under the Senate plan, local law enforcement agencies would be forced to share information with federal immigration authorities when they detain undocumented immigrants. The immigrants would not need to be convicted of a crime, but would have to be the custody of law enforcement officials, including campus police.
Gruters said he worked to narrow the scope of the bill to ensure it only dealt with “criminal illegal aliens who are in the judicial system.”
“As long as they are not arrested, there should be zero fear about being impacted by this bill,” Gruters, R-Sarasota, said.
But Torres took umbrage at Gruters repeated use of the words “illegal aliens.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are not aliens. We are human beings,” Torres said.
Democrats argued the Senate proposal is an “un-American” and “mean-spirited” approach to ensuring public safety.
“In the past the Senate has been the one to block these sorts of policies,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “The anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy is really politically motivated. I am convinced by that.”
Raising flags about the partisan politics that have engulfed the proposal, Republican Sen. Tom Lee said he was “conflicted” and “confused” about what the actual consequences of the bill would be if the Legislature passed the measure and DeSantis signed it into law.
“I am really on the fence here as to whether we are just picking on somebody, when we could be solving this problem globally or comprehensively,” said Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president who ultimately voted in favor of the bill (SB 168).
Under the Senate plan, local governments would be required to “use their best efforts to support the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
If a local or state official prevents participation in the program, the governor would have authority to remove that person from office, thanks to recent change to the bill that DeSantis worked to have adopted.
The measure requires local law enforcement officials to participate in programs such as the “287(g) program,” named after a section in a federal immigration law, that allows them to train and authorize personnel to identify and process undocumented immigrants.
Currently, there are five counties in Florida that participate in the program. According to the agreements between the counties and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the local law enforcement agency is in charge of covering the costs of out-of-state training, such as travel expenses.
“There are many reasons why local governments don’t enter into these agreements, and one of those reasons is because they are expensive,” Rodriguez argued.
Other programs local officials could participate in include the “Basic Ordering Agreement” program launched early last year, in which 34 Florida counties now participate, according to a staff analysis of the measure. Under the agreements, ICE pays the local governments $50 to house inmates for up to 48 hours.
During his short time in office, DeSantis has made a hard push for all 67 sheriff’s offices in the state to participate in federal immigration enforcement programs. In February, the governor also directed the Florida Department of Corrections to have a strategy in place to have the 287(g) program in state prisons.
Other costs associated with the bill include the costs county correctional facilities must pay for temporarily housing undocumented immigrants who are the subject of an immigration detainer. The bill does not include any money for those costs, Gruters said. Each county jail would be responsible for entering into a reimbursement agreement with the federal immigration agency.
All local law enforcement agencies would be required to honor immigration detainer requests under the Senate proposal. If federal immigration authorities want to deport that individual, county jails would be required to hold them for up to 48 hours.
The House and Senate have each passed their own version of a sanctuary city bill. Both chambers will now have to work out the policy differences before they can send it to DeSantis, who will almost certainly sign it into law.
Currently, the House version of the bill includes tougher sanctions for local and state officials who violate the provisions of the bill.
The House plan also would allow individuals to file wrongful death lawsuits against a local government, if a family member is killed or injured by an undocumented immigrant as a result of a sanctuary city policy.