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How A 'Secret Deal' Is Impacting Immigration Legislation In Florida

Sen. Joe Gruters talks about his bill SB 168 to ban sanctuary cities in Florida on March 12, 2019.
Sen. Joe Gruters talks about his bill SB 168 to ban sanctuary cities in Florida on March 12, 2019.

A controversial set of bills to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida appear to be on a fast-track to passage in Tallahassee. And that could be thanks in part to a secret deal made by lawmakers from both parties, according to Mike Fernandez, a billionaire healthcare magnate and prominent political booster in Miami.

According to Fernandez, a backdoor deal was made in late March by representatives from the agriculture industry and a state senator from each party to stall bills that would make Florida businesses check the immigration status of new hires via the “E-Verify” system, in exchange for the hard-line immigration legislation.

Fernandez declined to disclose the identity of the lawmakers involved in the deal or appear on The Florida Roundup.

“I think everyone who’s supportive of [the sanctuary cities] bill feels pretty encouraged,” News Service of Florida reporter Ana Ceballos said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “It looks like it’s heading to the House floor pretty soon and the Senate has one more stop then it heads to the floor.”

The Senate proposal, filed by Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican representing Sarasota, would require local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and honor requests for an “immigration detainer.” That is a request for local law enforcement to detain a person for 48 hours based on the probable cause that the person is undocumented, so that federal immigration authorities can come to local jails to make arrests. The bill would also give the attorney general authority to take action against local governments that fail to comply.

Critics say the move would have a negative effect on local law enforcement efforts by chipping away at trust and community relations between officers and crime victims.

The sanctuary cities ban “polls well among conservatives ... it appeals to the Republican base in Florida,” Samantha Gross, State Government Reporter with the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “The folks behind the sanctuary city bill are the people … that want stricter immigration policy across the board on a state level and in Congress, too.”

Meanwhile, the E-Verify bills concern a federal database to verify the immigration status of new employees, and have long been a point of divide among Republicans. Supporters of the system say it's a way to crack down on the use of undocumented workers. But some of the state’s largest business groups are opposed to using the system, namely those from the agriculture, hospitality and construction industries who rely on undocumented workers.

Under the secret deal, Fernandez said leaders agreed to fast-track the sanctuary city bills while putting the breaks on E-Verify proposals

Gross said Friday that’s exactly what’s happened in the legislative session thus far.

“The E-verify bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate but [hasn't] really made any strides,” Gross said. “It doesn’t really seem like they're getting much backing.”

Top leaders have denied that there's been a meeting or secret agreement. No lawmakers are going on the record thus far confirming a meeting took place.

Ceballos reported recently that the Senate proposal to ban sanctuary cities was influenced by the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, a self-described “anti-illegal immigration” activist group that says it wants to “defeat immigration anarchy.” Floridians for Immigration Enforcement has ties to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a “hate group.”

David Caulkett, the organization’s vice president who also serves as a Florida adviser for FAIR, told the News Service of Florida that his group worked closely with Gruters on the bill. 

Emails obtained by The News Service of Florida showed that the group suggested in January that Gruders include a provision that would give the attorney general authority to prosecute local governments that did not completely enforce federal immigration law. It also suggested the inclusion of a list of sanctuary cities -- or what it called "anarchy cities" -- in the bill analysis.

“Now the suggestion that they made in January we can see in the current version of bill," Ceballos said. 

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Jessica Weiss