As Arizona girds for massive protests and an avalanche of litigation against its controversial immigration law, which goes into effect Thursday, the Sunshine State is considering a similar crackdown. Supporters tried to introduce an Arizona-style bill during last week's special legislative session, but it ended almost before it began.
Lawmakers now plan to bring it up in September.
"The majority of people in my district and across Florida are demanding action," said Republican state Rep. William Snyder, a former police officer from Stuart, Fla. "There's a strong sense among the voters that the federal government has failed to stop the influx of illegal aliens, and they want the state to be involved."
A recent Rasmussen Reports survey found nearly two out of three Florida voters favor an Arizona-style immigration law here. Fewer than a third agree with the U.S. Department of Justice's decision to challenge the legislation's legality.
A separate poll of voters here revealed little support for offering a path to citizenship to those in the state illegally.
Tamara Suarez, a restaurant owner in Apalachicola, where the local oyster industry depends heavily on Latino workers, called the Arizona law "terrible" and worries it will take hold here. A legal immigrant from Venezuela who is now a U.S. citizen, she said attitudes have changed since she emigrated more than 20 years ago.
"Si, si, si," she said when asked if anti-immigrant sentiment has grown. "When I first came here, everybody was nice. It's changed."
Calculating the cost of immigration
According to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, Florida ranked third after California and Texas in unauthorized immigrants in 2008, with a little over 1 million, compared with Arizona's 500,000. A more recent report by the Department of Homeland Security pegs the number of unauthorized immigrants here at 720,000, or 7 percent of the state's population. That's down 10 percent from a decade ago, in what is seen as a reflection of the economic downturn.
With an 11.7 percent unemployment rate -- among the nation's highest -- and a projected $6 billion budget shortfall this year, Floridians have become keenly aware of the cost of illegal immigration.
According to a report by the advocacy group Federation for American Immigration Reform, Florida taxpayers spent more than $3.8 billion in 2008 to educate illegal immigrant children and "their U.S.-born siblings," provide them with health care and incarcerate undocumented criminals. That's "a fiscal burden of about $678 for each Florida household headed by a native-born resident," the group said.
Politifact Florida rejects the group's conclusions, saying they are "based on assumptions and estimates, not facts, which multiple state agencies confirmed."
But state Sen. Paula Dockery, who chairs the criminal justice committee, cites Florida Department of Correction statistics that show nearly 7,000 confirmed or suspected "alien inmates" in the state's prisons last year. Nearly 60 percent were serving time for violent crimes, including murder, sex offenses and drug-related crimes.
The Lakeland Republican, who dropped out of the governor's race in May, said wherever she went during her seven-month campaign, "one universal question that everyone asked is, 'What are you going to do about illegal immigration?' There is really an outcry in the state of Florida that they want something like the Arizona law."
Dockery is a co-sponsor of an immigration bill that would give law enforcement broad authority to check the legal status of people detained for traffic or criminal violations using the federal E-Verify system designed for businesses. If someone is undocumented, he or she could be sent to a federal detention center and face deportation.
She said the legislation resembles the amended version of the Arizona law in that it would only check a person's status once he or she is stopped for something else.
For Christina, who gave only her first name because she is here illegally, the idea of deporting criminals, prostitutes and even those with DUIs is "100 percent fine." But the single mother of three, who came here legally from Mexico in 1989 but overstayed her visa, said the law is unfair to immigrants like herself. She said she has never been on welfare and only wants to pursue the American dream.
"I was here for the same reason as most of the immigrants -- to make a better living, for a better life, a better education," she said in clear English, the language of her American-born children. "I'm a good person. I've never even gotten a speeding ticket, but if I hear a siren or see police lights ... you get freaked out."
A divide between state lawmakers
Florida lawmakers are hardly alone in wanting to crack down on undocumented immigrants. In the first three months of this year, legislators in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills and resolutions related to immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those include more than a dozen proposals for Arizona-style laws.
While the recent focus has been on Arizona and other border states, Florida has been at the front line in the clash over illegal immigration.
During the 1980 Mariel boat lift, more than 125,000 Cubans washed ashore in South Florida. Media attention focused on the unsavory in their midst, but only 2 percent of the exiles were denied citizenship because of criminal records. Researchers later found the influx of exiles had "virtually no effect on the wages and unemployment rates of less-skilled workers" in the state.
When Haitians fleeing economic and political upheaval tried to land on Florida beaches more than a decade later, they faced a different reception -- detention and mandatory repatriation.
Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles led Florida's effort to become the first state to take legal action against the federal government seeking reimbursement of costs related to illegal immigration.
"It's a kind of back to the future in terms of what's happening," said Mark Schlakman, a former immigration consultant now with the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He recently wrote that the practical value of an Arizona-style law is "suspect given that state officials cannot compel their federal counterparts to take undocumented foreign nationals into custody or to initiate removal proceedings against them."
State Sen. Alex Villalobos agrees. A Cuban-American born in Miami, he is one of several Hispanic Republican lawmakers who oppose the bill. Given that most undocumented immigrants arrive by boat and not by walking across a desert, "is Florida going to propose we create a navy to fight that off?" he asks. "The problem with doing the federal government's job is if you start to do it, they will let you do it and they won't pay for it."
Besides, he said, the law amounts to racial profiling. "In Miami Dade County, you could spend the rest of your life stopping people and asking them for their papers, because there are so many Hispanic-looking people," he said.
State Rep. Joseph Gibbons of Pembroke Park is among the majority of Democrats who oppose the measure. "For each state to pop up and have different laws doesn't make any sense," he said. "They are reacting to what Arizona did. I don't think it's a good idea. We don't need to deal with it all here. Let's enforce the laws we already have on the books."
But among Republicans, the issue is front and center in statewide election campaigns.
Rick Scott, the front-runner in the GOP primary for governor, aired a radio spot demanding that the Legislature take action during last week's special session. "Bring the Arizona immigration law here to Florida now," the spot urged.
Attorney General Bill McCollum, Scott's rival for the party nomination, joined with eight other state attorneys general in opposing the Obama administration's legal challenge to the Arizona law but has flip-flopped on an issue that's turning off many in Florida's large Hispanic community. Faced with a tight primary, though, he has lately taken a harder line.
"The political hype around it has increased," said Karen Woodhall, a lobbyist with the Florida Immigration Coalition. Traditionally, she said, Latino legislators from South Florida have helped kill off such legislation, but this is an election year and all bets are off.
The push-back from businesses
Despite complaints that Congress has failed to act so states must, Justice Department statistics show criminal immigration enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security is up, with deportations in 2010 expected to quadruple the number during the last year of the Bush administration. Instead of high-profile workplace raids, though, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is cracking down through behind-the-scenes audits of company records.
Mike Carlton, director of labor rel
He and other Florida growers favor comprehensive reform with a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally. But they aren't optimistic it will happen anytime soon. As a stopgap measure, Carlton favors simplifying the federal guest worker program, which he called "extremely complex and convoluted, difficult and expensive to use."
"We can grow crops really well, but if we can't harvest them, it means those crops don't get to the stores, and therefore the only thing to supplant them is imported food," he said.
Halsey Beshears, incoming president of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, said it's a fallacy that immigrant workers are taking farm jobs away from native-born Floridians. He's been unable to hire enough workers to plant his annual crop of trees and shrubs.
"We continue to try to hire and recruit Americans," he said. "The ones who come leave in a week or two. They don't want to stay. It's hot."
In nearby Gadsden County, meanwhile, half the tomato crop rotted this year because there weren't enough workers to pick them, said Maria, a farm contractor who did not want to be identified because she employs migrant workers who are here illegally. She said talk of an Arizona-style law combined with stricter federal enforcement has struck fear into the Hispanic community.
"Rumors are going around among those with children born here that they want to take their birth certificates and Social Security numbers away from them," she said. "Even documented people are scared."