Florida House approves ban — and penalties — on ‘sanctuary’ cities

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Florida’s Republican-led House voted Friday to outlaw “sanctuary” cities and to impose harsh penalties on any elected officials or communities that seek to thwart that ban.

After a divisive debate that spanned almost three hours over two days, the House endorsed the proposed law by a 76-41 vote, with Democrats vehemently opposed.

Republicans said the bill supports American freedom and “the rule of law” by prohibiting local law enforcement from resisting compliance with federal immigration laws and detention requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“To essentially encourage illegal activity should be offensive to everyone,” Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, said in reference to communities deemed to be “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants.

RELATED: Judge blocks Trump from cutting off funds to ‘sanctuary cities’

The controversial measures proposed in HB 697 are unlikely to become law this year. A companion bill in the Senate wasn’t heard in committee.

Lawmakers still debated the legislation at length, as Republicans aimed to temper what they viewed as inflammatory rhetoric by Democrats.

“It’s not requiring that you go out and hunt down people, and it’s not an anti-immigrant bill,” Stuart Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell said. “Before you go off and really expand what this bill does, read the bill — and understand what the bill exactly does.”

Democrats argue what the bill does is seek to target undocumented immigrants and impose an unfunded mandate on local law enforcement agencies. They say the measure is offensive to immigrants and minority populations.

“You’re only picking on one entity and that bothers me,” Kissimmee Democratic Rep. John Cortes said.

In describing her opposition, Coral Gables Democratic Rep. Daisy Baez described her personal story of coming to America as an immigrant. She told the House: “When you have to vote on this bill, please remember I am your colleague. I am an immigrant and when you talk about ‘those people,’ you’re talking about me.”

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Dozens of immigrant advocates gathered at the Florida Capitol in March to oppose anti-immigrant bills lawmakers are considering this spring.

Kristen M. Clark kclark@miamiherald.com

“I think it’s wrong just to target a specific population because that’s how my forefathers got here — on a free cruise,” said St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton, who is black.

The federal government has sole authority over immigration. It cannot force states to enforce federal laws. But bill sponsor Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said his proposal would ensure Florida does its part in supporting federal efforts to manage immigration.

MORE: ‘Sanctuary’ counties targeted for penalties by controversial legislation

Metz’s legislation has an array of specific impacts, including formally defining a “sanctuary policy,” prohibiting governments from adopting them and requiring any existing policies to be repealed within three months — or the government entity risks a fine of up to $5,000 a day.

The Legislature could withhold state grant funding for five years from governments that violate the proposed law, and the governor would also be empowered to remove any elected official from office who violates it.

Other provisions include requiring government officials and workers to report “known or probable violations” of the act — under threat of suspension or removal from elected office — and requires the attorney general to investigate those reports. Whistle-blowers who report violations would be explicitly protected.

The legislation advanced through the House this year in the wake of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and his executive order to withhold funding from “sanctuary” cities — plans that were blocked this week by a federal judge.

Under the threat of lost dollars, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in January revoked the county’s position as a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants and ordered county jails to comply with federal detention requests.

During floor debate, Palm Coast Republican Rep. Paul Renner seemed to argue that America could end up like the former Soviet Union if it doesn’t enforce its immigration laws. He said that the “cruel and violent dictatorship” had a constitution, too, “but they didn’t follow that constitution.”

“It’s not OK to disregard any laws that we don’t like,” Renner said. “It’s not acceptable for cities and counties in our state to disregard immigration laws — for any reason.”

A constitutionally questionable and similarly divisive proposal — which would have subjected undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes to harsher penalties than legal residents or U.S. citizens would otherwise face — also is unlikely to become law this year. The legislation stalled and failed to advance to either chamber’s floor, which was expected before session even began.

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