In 2014, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature gave children who were in the country without authorization in-state tuition at public colleges. A year earlier, the conservative state House voted to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, although the governor ultimately rejected that policy.
But as the national political pendulum swings, so does the country’s largest presidential battleground state.
In a closely watched debate that has drawn attention across the country, Florida is set to adopt one of the strictest laws in the nation against so-called sanctuary cities and counties. The legislation, expected to be approved by the state Senate as early as Friday, would require local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and penalize public officials who fail to do so.
At play in Florida are Republican base politics under President Donald Trump and the state’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, who ran as a Trump ally and staunch opponent of sanctuary cities even though most analysts agree Florida does not have any. Trump has talked about releasing migrants apprehended at the border to sanctuary cities run by his Democratic foes.
The law would require local governments to use their “best efforts” to support federal immigration law, including complying with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to jail immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally until ICE is able to pick them up. Any officials who violated the law could be suspended or removed from office — or, in the House version of the bill, fined up to $5,000 a day.
“This is about public safety,” said Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “If you’re a hardworking illegal immigrant that is not breaking the law, you have nothing to worry about. If you want to be a criminal and be here illegally, my advice is to go to California or one of those other sanctuaries.”
At stake, opponents say, are not just the civil liberties of immigrants but also Florida’s thriving economy and its identity — at least in the state’s biggest cities — as a melting pot that welcomes outsiders. About 20% of Florida’s population is foreign-born, although that share is far higher, 53%, in Miami and Orlando.
“I really thought we were past this already, truth be told,” said former Sen. René García, a Republican from the Miami-area city of Hialeah, where 96% of residents are Hispanic. “It’s not the right thing to do. It makes no sense. We’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It is politically motivated.”
Similar laws have been enacted or considered by Republican legislatures amid anguishing debates in a handful of other states. But some defiant local officials seem to ignore the laws anyway. The Miami police chief has said he would rather be out of a job than order officers to ask people about their immigration status before helping them.
In Texas, where lawmakers passed a law two years ago requiring that local authorities cooperate with ICE, several of the state’s largest cities challenged the mandate in court but lost. The Florida bill appears based on the Texas law, although its penalties for local officials are lighter, said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies.
“It’s designed to be bulletproof against the inevitable lawsuits that will be filed by advocacy groups in Florida,” she said. “Those are going to have a tough time, considering that the Texas law has already passed muster.”
Unlike other states, however, Florida’s immigrant population includes people from countries that Republicans — starting with Trump — have enthusiastically courted: Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, who are seen as more likely to align politically with conservatives.
Democratic state lawmakers, who have been united in their opposition to the sanctuary cities bill, have cast Republicans as hypocritical for saying they want to help Venezuelan immigrants while voting for legislation that could make it easier to deport them.
Cuban American lawmakers have had to grapple with the fact that their families received special immigration privileges when they arrived. One of them, Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, is the lone Republican to oppose the bill in the Senate so far.
“I have an incredibly diverse district that has a lot of migrant communities, a lot of farmworkers,” she said. “But I also think that there’s a responsibility to represent your community as a Hispanic woman and to understand that in my family’s situation, but for unique laws that were in place for Cubans when my parents came, they could have very well been undocumented immigrants.”
Debates in the Capitol have been long and emotional. Last week, the parents of a 21-year-old man killed by a man who had been twice deported spoke to a committee of senators. Then an 11-year-old girl and her 7-year-old cousin spoke to them about their parents who immigrated from Honduras.
Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miami, said on the House floor that her parents came from Colombia on a visa and overstayed it. “Is that who we are referring to as criminals?” she said, fighting back tears.
National immigration advocacy groups have urged their members to call Florida state senators seen as potential swing voters to oppose the bill or at least support amendments that would narrow its scope. Some organizations have mobilized scores of protesters to Tallahassee, the state capital, where they have held signs and prayed outside the offices of key lawmakers. The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a “travel alert” this month warning that immigrants’ rights could be at risk should the legislation be signed into law.
The ACLU has claimed that ICE issued mistaken requests to detain 420 immigrants who were actually U.S. citizens in the Miami-Dade County jail over the past two years. Miami-Dade was the first municipality in the country to begin complying with the detention requests again after vowing not to when Trump threatened in 2017 to withhold federal funds from “sanctuaries.”
Leaders from more than 120 state businesses signed an open letter to the governor and lawmakers cautioning them that the legislation could hurt numerous sectors of the state’s economy.
“There goes agriculture,” said Mike Fernández, a billionaire health care executive who helped organize the opposition. “There goes construction. There goes home health service.”
But other important business interests have been less vocal in their opposition, at least publicly, than they were during an immigration debate in 2011. That year, Gov. Rick Scott, fueled into office by Tea Party fervor, tried unsuccessfully to pass a stringent immigration law. The difference, according to Fernández, is that this year’s proposal does not include employers’ biggest worry: a mandate to use the E-Verify electronic system to check employees’ immigration status.
Still, business interests might not carry the political weight they used to with Florida Republicans.
“I say this very respectfully: I don’t care what the business community thinks,” Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said on the floor this week.
After his first year in office, Scott, who is now in the U.S. Senate, distanced himself from harsh immigration rhetoric and the pursuit of contentious enforcement bills, a move seen as wise for his political future.
“He worked really hard to thread this needle: He was tough on enforcement without demagoguing the immigrant community,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “DeSantis has kind of thrown that strategy out the window. It makes me wonder what the long-term plans are for Republicans in Florida.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.