Florida Republican lawmakers are pushing punitive immigrant and refugee legislation once again this session. Similar proposals died last year. But the 2016 campaign season may be stimulating an appetite for change.
People holding signs and chanting at the Capitol building in Tallahassee is a familiar sight to motorists driving by. Protesters in Florida and across the U.S. have objected to President Donald Trump’s words or actions.
When announcing his presidential run, he called some Mexican immigrants “criminals" and "rapists.” Trump called for a Muslim ban after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. Shortly after taking office in January, the administration ordered a temporary ban on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Courts have since blocked that executive action.
Proposals by Florida Republican lawmakers echo Trump’s campaign promises. The legislature expects to consider harsher criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants who violate state laws, tightening voter ID laws and deleting a current law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. There’s also measures to reduce Florida’s participation in the federal refugee resettlement program.
Republican lawmakers argue the measures increase the safety and security of Floridians. But activists have said the raft of bills criminalize immigrant communities and tear families apart.
Legislation by Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, and Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, would increase penalties for certain crimes when committed by undocumented immigrants. Hutson said his legislation focuses on serious misdemeanors and felonies like armed burglary and murder.
“This bill focuses on the worst of the worst unlawful aliens and attempts to keep them behind bars longer once they enter our judicial system,” he said.
Florida Democrats hope tying Republicans to Trump will pay off at the ballot box next year. Florida Democratic spokesman Max Steele calls Hutson’s proposal a “off-brand Trump impression” that he believes will cost the state millions in court challenges.
David Santiago, R-Deltona, has a bill to remove Florida from the federal refugee resettlement program. Gov. Rick Scott has opposed Syrian refugee resettlement in the state. But Santiago’s measure won’t have much impact since federal money going to local resettlement agencies would flow directly there instead of passing through the state first.
Florida State University Professor Will Hanley believes measure’s discriminatory.
“As far as the purview of this committee is concerned, it makes a lot more sense to direct your attention to the situation of children and families who are refugees in this state," he said. "Their situation is very difficult.”
State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, are calling on Congress to make it easier for states to enact voter identification laws. Trump says more than 3 million people voted illegally last year. But he has not offered any proof to support his claim. Bean and Metz also have legislation requiring state and local agencies comply with federal immigration law enforcement.