TALLAHASSEE -- For evidence of the political minefield that is immigration reform, look no further than the Florida Senate.
On one side is Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who is looking to attract tea-party conservatives to his Republican bid for U.S. Senate, along with others in the GOP — including Gov. Rick Scott — who want to show they are taking action to tackle illegal immigration.
On the other side are the state’s powerful Hispanic caucus and some of the biggest special interests in Florida: the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Catholic Conference, farmers and other agricultural interests. The clergy argues a crackdown would be immoral; the business groups worry it would be a blow to the state’s limping economy.
All of this puts Haridopolos in a bind. As Senate candidate, he doesn’t just need conservative voters: He needs cash. And groups like the chamber, AIF and U.S. Sugar have it.
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For now, he has stayed out of the fray. Taking the heat is the person he tasked with shepherding the Senate’s immigration bill: Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores.
Angry immigrants and their children last week swarmed Flores on the dais. Commentators on the Spanish-language airwaves in Miami have likened her bill to a controversial immigration law in Arizona that has been partly blocked by the courts.
Flores’ response has been to tell critics that things could be worse without her — a Cuban-American sensitive to the feelings of Hispanics — at the helm.
“This year, an immigration law is going to pass,” Flores said this week on Mega TV’s María Elvira Live. “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
Her proposal is softer than the one headed to the floor of the state House, which would make being undocumented a state crime, in addition to already being a federal offense.
“The House bill goes much too far,” Flores said Thursday in an interview.
The House version would also require police to check the immigration status of a person who is the subject of a criminal investigation if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be undocumented. The Senate would have police to check the status of an inmate.
And while both bills would mandate employers to check employees’ immigration status, the Senate proposal gives employers more leeway on how to do so.
The Senate stalled debate over its bill until after next week’s Passover and Easter holidays.
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott has remained steadfast in his position.
“If somebody is in our country and doing something illegal, they should be asked if they are legal or not if they’re stopped by law enforcement,” Scott said earlier this week.
Elected without the initial backing of the Republican and business establishment, Scott had made an Arizona-style immigration law the centerpiece of his successful GOP primary campaign against Bill McCollum.
Business and tourism groups fear approval of any immigration bill will hurt their bottom line.
“The mere consideration of this bill is causing the image of the state of Florida to be tarnished — not only nationally but internationally,” Adam Babington, the Florida Chamber’s lobbyist, told a House committee Thursday.
The same principle applies to national politics, said Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro, who has lobbied for immigration reform.
“If they pass something that is viewed as anything similar to Arizona law, it could very well wind up costing us Florida in the 2012 presidential election,” said Navarro, who advised presidential nominee John McCain on Hispanic issues. “Because what we’ve seen is that it energizes the Latino vote.
“They hold the Republican brand accountable,” she added. “And every candidate, justly or unjustly, pays the price.”