By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Two prominent state senators intend to release proposals for the 2020 legislative session that would set up the Republican platform on immigration, a key issue going into next year’s election cycle.
Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, and Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons plan to file measures that illustrate different approaches to the thorny topic of immigration, the source of some of the Legislature’s most heated controversies in recent years.
While Gruters’ proposals would further crack down on illegal immigration, Simmons is seeking to add protections for undocumented residents living and working in the Sunshine State.
Simmons says he will file legislation that would give undocumented immigrants legal permits to work and drive in Florida, in an effort to bring them “out of the shadows” and have them follow state laws. Such a policy change would have an impact on roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state.
“They are already working, and they are already driving,” Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview. “This is not a path to citizenship. This is about dealing with this in a matter that is not demagoguing individuals.”
Gruters, who earlier this year sponsored a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities,” is taking the opposite approach. He wants to pair up with state Rep. Cord Byrd again to push bills that will toughen immigration laws in the state.
One measure “would enhance penalties for convicted and deported criminals who re-enter the United States illegally,” Gruters said in a text message.
Another proposal would require all Florida employers to use E-Verify, a federal electronic system that checks employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S.
With President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket on next year’s ballot, the immigration measures could be an important tool in Florida, a state considered crucial for a White House win and a place where the issue has aided GOP candidates.
For example, Gov. Ron DeSantis used a hard-line stance on immigration as part of a successful playbook in his bid for governor last year.
Since taking office in January, DeSantis — whose endorsement by President Donald Trump helped boost him to victory in November — was heavily involved in the passage of the sanctuary city ban. The law, which went into effect on July 1, is being challenged in federal court.
The governor’s office did not respond when asked if DeSantis would support any of the immigration proposals next session. And Gruters said it is “too early” for the governor to be involved in his bills.
With the passage of the sanctuary city ban, Gruters already allowed the governor to deliver on one of his campaign promises. And the Sarasota Republican may help DeSantis make good on another immigration pledge with the E-Verify proposal, which has faced fierce opposition from Florida agricultural and business interests in the past.
Gruters, meanwhile, said he is still open to considering other immigration-related bills. The senator is preparing to embark on a statewide immigration “listening tour.” Dates and locations of the stops will be announced this week, Gruters said.
While the Republicans’ crackdown on illegal immigration may help court conservative voters in advance of next year’s elections, Democrats have lambasted the policies.
“These pieces of legislation are nothing more than a reflection of the President’s xenophobic strategy of demonizing our immigrant communities and firing up the Republican base ahead of the 2020 election,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, told the News Service.
Cruz is more aligned to what Simmons is proposing.
“Florida’s economic future is dependent on continuing to build our reputation as a welcoming state that values diversity and inclusion,” Cruz said. “Instead of driving undocumented immigrants further into the shadows, we should be doing all we can to ensure they have the ability to work legally, pay taxes, and live without fear of being separated from their families.”
Simmons’ softer approach to immigration policy may be a hard sell for his fellow Republicans, especially in an election year. Similar efforts previously have failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
But allowing undocumented immigrants to work and drive legally in Florida could resonate among Hispanic voters — a key constituency in the Sunshine State — at a time when immigrant communities are fearful of the new sanctuary city law.
The new statute requires local law enforcement agencies to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities when undocumented immigrants are detained or in the custody of law enforcement. That can include detention over a driving offense.
Simmons said he still supports the sanctuary city law and does not believe exemptions should be carved out for undocumented immigrants who commit minor driving offenses.
Instead, he says undocumented immigrants should follow state driving laws and be given the ability to have insurance. Simmons said his proposal would put together an “immigration policy that works,” until the federal government acts.
Senate President Bill Galvano’s office said none of the immigration proposals were sought at his direction. While Galvano has spoken with Gruters, the Senate president has not talked with Simmons about his bill yet, according to Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta.
“Oftentimes senators from both parties will mention ideas to the president or let him know what they are working on, but he doesn’t green-light or red-light every proposal from the onset,” Betta said in an email. “To the contrary, the president makes every effort to refrain from weighing in, so that senators have the opportunity to vet their ideas with their colleagues and constituents.”
Though the Senate’s top Republican says he has refrained from chiming in on the immigration policies, the business lobby is already gearing up for a fight — at least when it comes to E-Verify.
“It will certainly be a priority of ours,” said Towson Fraser, a spokesman for the American Business Immigration Coalition, whose membership includes South Florida billionaire Mike Fernandez, a former GOP contributor who left the Republican Party, in part, because of its hardline immigration policies.
The group’s members also include billionaire auto-dealer Norman Braman and lobbyist Al Cardenas, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman.
Fraser said the group — and a “majority of businesses” — oppose E-Verify and will likely have discussions in the near future to determine what resources will be devoted to the fight against the policy.
In Florida, representatives of the agriculture and construction industry have publicly warned that E-Verify would make it harder for them to find workers.
But DeSantis isn’t backing down from the battle over E-Verify.
“We got a lot of irons in the fire this session, we want to deliver on things that we can,” DeSantis told reporters in March. “This will be one I’m not going to quit on.”