Think Florida’s ‘sanctuary cities’ debate is over? Think again

A brief history of the sanctuary movement in the United States

Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.

The race to achieve what is one of the governor’s most hardline Republican campaign promises is far from reaching the finish line.

In fact, it more resembles a volleyball match that has just begun.

After hours and hours of excruciatingly emotional debate last week and over the past few months, a set of bills that would ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida passed off the floor in both chambers But after the House passed its version of the bill and sent it to the Senate, the Senate chose to take up its own version which has been tossed back to the House.

What is left is a set of very different bills, amendments that even further deepen the divide between the two and a House Speaker who says he is not amenable to taking up the Senate version.

At their core, the bills create rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Under the bills, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.

But the House version builds in a rule that local government employees or elected officials who permit sanctuary-city policies may be suspended or removed from office. It also includes fines of up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place.

And the Senate version includes a few amendments that soften the bill beyond what House Republicans care to agree with.

The House has put forward a similar bill over the past few years, but it has always died in the Senate.

To be clear, there are no municipalities in Florida that now have sanctuary policies.

The two chambers are jockeying over what will be the final product — a feud typically reserved for closed-door negotiations. The match has spilled into the public with just days left in the 2019 legislative session, a culmination of months of emotional office visits by immigrant families, protests, prayer vigils and even travel warnings by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill’s final moments also coincide with a Monday order by President Donald Trump, who imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers at the Mexican border, including application fees, work permit restraints and direction that cases in immigration courts be settled within 180 days.

The Senate sent its version of the bill back to the House late last week, where House sources say it will be taken up Wednesday for a vote and a 75-minute structured debate among members, many of whom filed amendments that now total more than 100.

House Speaker José Oliva said the Senate version “will not be supported in the House,” alluding to a likely write-through of the bill via amendments to make it look more like the restrictive House version put forward by Rep. Cord Byrd.

The clock is ticking as session wanes to a close Friday but if history is any indication, lawmakers will continue to debate for hours as they teeter on the cusp of enacting one of the nation’s strictest laws against “sanctuary cities” — with both sides contemplating language they say was written by the governor’s staff itself.

One of the key issues the House has with the Senate version it plans to decimate is an unlikely amendment by Miami Sen. José Javier Rodríguez — the first and only amendment on the bills passed by a Democrat.

The amendment exempts the Department of Children and Families or employees of the department from being compelled to comply with an ICE request and was adopted into the bill, as not enough Republicans were in the chamber to vote it down when it came up in debate last week.

Because no one questioned its relevance, Rodríguez said his amendment is telling of how broad the bill truly is. If the Department of Children and Families could be deputized as an ICE agent, then other groups covered in the bill like traffic cops and universities could be, too.

“The DCF amendment signals the absurdity of just how anti-immigrant and sweeping this bill is,” Rodríguez said.

Sen. Joe Gruters, the Sarasota Republican who sponsored the bill, argued that the amendment is totally irrelevant. Without Rodriguez’s amendment, it would have been “a slam dunk,” he said.

Instead, it will face a critical audience in the House.

“I think that may cause some heartburn,” Gruters said as he stepped out of the House chamber following a brief, mid-session huddle with Byrd.

Gruters is right. Oliva told reporters Tuesday that Rodríguez’s bill creates what he calls a “sanctuary department” in protecting DCF and that he won’t stand for it

“It’s a great irony for a bill that is seeking to make sure that everyone cooperates with law enforcement,” the Miami Lakes Republicans said. “The bill as it is would not be supported in the House.”

Byrd said he hopes the House takes the Senate version, “fixes it up” and sends it back.

“It’s passed the House the last three years … the fact that we made it this far is monumental progress,” said Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican. “Until sine die or the final whistle, I’m going to keep fighting.”