A proposed ban on sanctuary policies evoked talk of fear and bigotry, shouts of "Shame on you!" and the scolding of a Democratic senator who admonished a woman Wednesday for disparaging Miami, the Florida city with the largest Hispanic population.
After the dust settled, the Senate Rules committee narrowly approved the bill that would force local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal authorities who enforce immigration laws. The bill now goes to the full Senate the day after a similar House bill was approved in its last committee stop.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida and was President Donald Trump's Florida campaign chairman. He and House sponsor Republican Rep. Cord Byrd say the bill is simply a matter of following the rule of law and isn't an attempt to have Florida police agencies enforce federal law. It prohibits local governments from adopting policies that would restrict law enforcement from communication with federal immigration authorities.
"This bill is about respecting the rule of law. It's about cooperating with the federal government. It's about promoting public safety," Gruters said. "If you're a hard-working undocumented alien out there trying to survive, and with your family and trying to do good, you have nothing to worry about unless you are arrested and/or convicted."
The bill, though, ramped up emotions on both sides of the issue, with immigrants and their advocates saying it will create more fear among people already afraid to come forward to police to report crime, and supporters saying illegal immigration comes with danger.
Opponents said it will be used by police and could lead to the deportation of people who commit minor infractions, such as possessing a small amount of marijuana or traffic violations.
"The natural consequences of this bill will be more deportation of immigrants and more immigrant parents being taken away from their American-born children. Sponsors and supports of this bill would have you believe that it only affects bad criminals, but in fact the vast majority of people who will be harmed by this bill have never even been convicted of a crime, let alone a dangerous, violent felony," said Kara Gross, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Proponents said the bill will keep the state safer. The committee heard from Kiyan Michael, whose son Brandon was struck and killed by a driver who had been deported twice and illegally returned to the country again. Michael and her husband Robert also appeared at a news conference with Gruters before the meeting. Also at the news conference was Yvonne Larsen, a member of the Remembrance Project, a group that describes itself as "a voice for victims killed by illegal aliens."
Larsen was chastised by Rules Committee Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto while testifying before the committee. She said she and her husband "happily" moved from Houston, a city with a 45% percent Hispanic population, to Fort Myers in southwest Florida. She suggested that immigrants in the country illegally are rapists, then said, "I'm really glad I didn't choose to live in Miami." Miami has a 72% Hispanic population.
"Ma'am, that testimony is absolutely not appropriate," Benacquisto said.
Later, Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer called Larsen out.
"To the woman who decided not to live in Miami, we appreciate that. I know that the skin there might be a little too tan, and the language might sound funny, but we like our community," said Farmer, who lives in Broward County just north of Miami.
Benacquisto tried silencing Farmer 12 times, saying he should keep his debate to the bill and not personal attacks. But Farmer continued over the calls for him to stop.
"The suggestion by some that immigration has a direct correlation to crime or increased death is just patently wrong and patently racist," Farmer said. "It's offensive suggestions like this that derail this debate."
Another bill supporter, Amapola Hansberger, also stood with Gruters and Byrd at their news conference. She emigrated from Nicaragua as a teenager and said living in a sanctuary city would be like her experience in Managua — living in a home with walls and barred windows and sleeping with a gun under her bed.
"They will kill you," she said of immigrants in the country illegally.