Contentious bill to ban ‘sanctuary cities’ passes Senate committee in final minute

After heated back-and-forth with committee Democrats, Sen. Joe Gruters’ controversial anti-sanctuary city bill cleared its second of three hurdles Tuesday. After the vote, advocates for the immigrant communities erupted into shouts of “shame on you,” and many were escorted out of the committee room by security.

Dozens of advocates left the room and formed a prayer circle “for our undocumented brothers and sisters,” one said. Others waited to thank Democrat senators for their pushback.

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee voted 5-3 along party lines in the final minute of the meeting, approving the much-contested SB 168, which died in the Senate last year.

While there is no such thing as a sanctuary city in Florida, committee chair Sen. Tom Lee said defining it in law is important for addressing a potential sanctuary city in the future.

“Legislation is typically an effort to address an existing problem or it’s filed in anticipation of a potential problem down the road,” the Thonotosassa Republican said. “In this case having a definition might be helpful, Whether we have one today or not by this definition, sometimes it simplifies.”

Lee added that a burgeoning immigrant population is “becoming a liability.”

“We’re essentially pregnant with millions and millions of people who come here … most of them to make a better life. But they’re not here legally,” he said. “People commit crimes and are becoming a liability to the lawful citizens of our state.”

Committee members Sens. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa), Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) and Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) fired back at Gruters.

Cruz pointed out that studies used in the bill analysis are cited as anti-immigrant hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Taddeo asked Gruters if he’d be willing to apply this bill to only those who commit a felony. Stewart asked why the bill is not called a “sanctuary city” bill.

To their questions, Gruters said the federal government “doesn’t take into effect whether you’ve committed a felony or a misdemeanor. My advice is if you’re not breaking the law, this bill will not impact you whatever.” He added that he did not name the bill, and wasn’t asked by staff to weigh in.

The bill creates rules relating to federal immigration enforcement by prohibiting “sanctuary” policies and requiring state and local law enforcement to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill also would give whistleblower status to officers who report citizenship violations by undocumented immigrants detained in local jails on unrelated charges.

Under this bill, local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” meaning a request that another law enforcement agency detain a person based on probable cause to believe that the person is a “removable alien” under federal immigration law. The bill would essentially make the “request” a requirement.

The proposed policy does not apply to the release of education records and does not require law enforcement to provide ICE with information related to a victim or witness to a criminal offense.

“This is about public safety,” said Gruters, who represents Sarasota. “This is about making sure these criminal, illegal aliens have a safe transfer in the secure environment of where they’re at.”

Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, filed the same language from the bill he co-sponsored last year but has said his new role as leader of the party will boost support for the bill. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Republican Reps. Cord Byrd and Erin Grall filed similar bills in the Senate and House.

Kara Gross, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, said the bill will disproportionately affect people who are not dangerous because those who are detained in jail — not prison — have not yet been convicted of a crime. The bill also applies to people who are being released from jail, meaning they are likely not considered dangerous enough to be held without bail.

“There are lots of reasons people, and often disproportionately people of color and immigrants or perceived immigrants, end up in jail for non-violent minor offenses,” Gross said. “Driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, underage drinking, graffiti, possession of small amounts of marijuana … they haven’t been convicted of anything at all, let alone a violent offense.”

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