TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As the debate over so-called sanctuary cities is back in the national spotlight, two Republican-led proposals that would bar such policies in Florida are close to being ready for final consideration.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved the House version of the bill, which would carry fines and penalties for local governments that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“It is important to not put the citizens of our state at a disadvantage to criminal aliens,” said Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican sponsoring the bill (HB 527).
Byrd’s bill is now ready for consideration on the House floor, where it is likely to pass, just like similar proposals have in recent years. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, believes “local law enforcement should cooperate with federal immigration authorities,” his office said Tuesday.
Under the House proposal, local government employees or elected officials who allow or vote for sanctuary-city policies or against the repeal of the policies may be suspended or removed from office. The proposal would also allow the state to fine local governments up to $5,000 for each day that a sanctuary-city policy is in place.
The Senate proposal (SB 168), which will go before the Rules Committee on Wednesday, is a more watered-down version than what is proposed in the House. Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as the Republican Party of Florida chairman, has made the issue a top priority this year, giving momentum to a proposal that has died in the Senate in the past.
To make it more appealing in the Senate, Gruters agreed to strip penalties from the proposal early in the legislative session. As the bill moved forward in the process, Gruters added a provision that gave the attorney general authority to bring civil actions against local governments that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
In the Senate, one Republican has come out against the bill, a departure from the House, which has passed its proposal along party lines.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told The News Service of Florida that she will vote against the measure. Also, Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who has been targeted in Spanish-language ads by activists opposing the bill, said that while he supports the bill as currently written, he may be on the fence if it alters the roles of local law enforcement too much.
“My concern would be if it goes above and beyond and turns local law enforcement into ICE agents,” Diaz told the News Service. “Right now, if it doesn’t cross those lines, I’d be in support of it.”
The issue of sanctuary cities has drawn heavy national attention during the past week amid reports that President Donald Trump has considered sending undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities. Trump has taken a hard line on immigration issues, including in his opposition to sanctuary cities.
Florida Republican lawmakers seeking to prevent sanctuary cities also have the backing of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has supported the idea.
The bills before the Legislature this year would require local law enforcement to honor federal immigration detainers. That would involve local officials holding undocumented immigrants in custody based solely on the requests from federal immigration authorities, which are administrative requests.
On Tuesday, Democrats on the House panel raised concerns that passage of the proposal would lead to more deportations as a result of minor crimes, like driving without a license or marijuana possession. They also worried that Venezuelans, who come to Florida in search of asylum, may be targeted.
Byrd brushed off those arguments, saying it would be up to federal immigration authorities to determine who gets deported, not local governments. He argued his bill was only forcing local officials to comply with federal immigration law and target those who are detained for breaking state law.
“They would only be in detention if they committed a crime under state law no matter how minor or how serious,” Byrd said.
The hearing on the House bill drew heated debate from dozens of citizens and advocacy groups for and against banning sanctuary cities.
David Caulkett, a member of the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, who had sway over the drafting of the Senate bill, was among those who came out in support of the measure.
When the News Service of Florida asked Caulkett last month about his role in the Senate bill’s drafting, he declined to comment. Instead, he stressed that his organization is in favor of “defeating immigration anarchy” and supports legal immigration “at a limit.”
Before Gruters’ bill is up for consideration Wednesday, family members of U.S. citizens who have been killed by undocumented immigrants are scheduled to hold a “Victims of Illegal Immigration Day” at the Florida Capitol. Caulkett’s group is among the groups sponsoring the event at the Capitol.
If Gruters’ bill passes in the committee, it will be ready to go to the full Senate.
On Tuesday, the Clay County Sheriff's Office said it wanted to clarify it is not a sanctuary county and released the following statement that had been approved by Sheriff Darryl Daniels:
We are not a sanctuary county as rumored on various websites. Sheriff Daniels has stood strong and firm against being classified as such, but some still label our community falsely.
"It seems that lately many people have noticed Clay County being labeled inaccurately; therefore, we wanted to clarify this. We work closely with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - known as ICE - and have a great relationship with their organization, so don’t be fooled by those seeking to mislabel us."
In 2017, the Center for Immigration Studies listed Clay County as a sanctuary county, but the group’s most recent list of sanctuary cities and counties no longer lists Clay County. In fact, four Clay County deputies are among about 1,500 law enforcement officers to be deputized by ICE across the nation. Five Florida sheriff’s offices are part of the program, including Jacksonville and Clay.