MANATEE — A federal judge’s ruling this week blocking most of a controversial Arizona immigration law won’t deter a Bradenton lawmaker from pursuing an even tougher bill in Florida.
Nor has it deterred several other Florida lawmakers proposing similar action, with public sentiment ranging from cries of racism to adamant support of tough local immigration laws.
Under the Arizona law, local and state law enforcement officers would be required to determine the immigration status for any lawful contact they make if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is unlawfully in the United States. Anyone deemed to be an illegal immigrant could be transported by Arizona officials to federal custody, regardless of whether any other laws were broken.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would take that a significant step further by giving Florida local government the right to deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
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“If I pass my law, we will have the right to put them on a plane,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to wait for the feds because they don’t do anything.”
Bennett’s bill is one of several being modeled after the Arizona law proposed by Florida lawmakers, including Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker; Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; and Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa.
While tough new immigration laws might enjoy support from the American public — a June poll by the non-partisan Quinnipiac University Poll showed voters favoring Arizona style laws by a 48-35 percent margin — the question remains: Are they constitutional?
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton doesn’t think so, as evidenced in her ruling against the Arizona law. And several federal officials who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity said that any bill proposing to allow states to directly deport illegal immigrants would not be allowed to fly.
Juan Rodriguez, a community organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, is appalled that Arizona-style immigration laws have now been proposed in at least a dozen other states.
“It’s a huge concern to us the way it is being used as a model throughout the country,” Rodriguez said.
The Coalition this week delivered a letter to Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, expressing disappointment at his support of Arizona’s immigration law.
Martine Apodaca of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., also says the Arizona law is unconstitutional.
Calling Bolton’s ruling a temporary victory for the civil rights of every American, Apodaca questioned why Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and George LeMieux have not stepped up to seek a federal solution for America’s broken immigration system, rather than allowing state lawmakers to propose a patchwork of legislation.
“I look a lot like the people who would be stopped,” Apodaca said. “I would hate to think I would end up in jail one day because I forgot my driver license.”
But many citizens, as the Quinnipiac poll suggests, support tougher laws on immigration without hesitation.
Bill Orr, a Bradenton Republican, is one of those champions. Immigrants illegally coming into the United States are breaking the law, he points out. And he has no problem with rounding them up and sending them back to their home countries.
“We already have a law. Just enforce it,” Orr said. “I don’t think the federal government should have the right to tell the states what to do.”
But C. J. Czaia, former president of the Manatee County Democratic Party, says Arizona’s law is racist, unfairly targeting Mexicans and other Hispanics.
“If they wanted to stop everyone and check everyone, it would be more plausible than selecting one type,” Czaia said.
Sheriffs work with feds
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight use a federal program called Secure Communities to have some foreign-born criminals in their jails deported. They say they have no desire to expand their operations to have illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes deported.
The sheriffs say the federal program they use is an effective tool whose only shortcoming is its lack of resources.
Under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, 145 people were removed from Sarasota County and taken to an ICE detention facility in Miami from May 26, 2009, to July 19, 2010, Knight said.
The federal government removed more than 300 people from Manatee County since 2007, Steube said.
Steube said he would not aggressively go after illegal immigrants even if he could.
“If that law is brought to Florida and I was told to go to a field out on State Road 64 and if I rounded up 50 people and determined that they are all here illegally, my first question is, ‘Who will detain them, because I don’t have the space,’ and ‘If I did find a way to detain them, when is ICE going to pick them up?’ ”
To point out how Arizona’s law might impact Manatee, Steube said his office recently did a sting at El Paisano on 15th Street East in Bradenton.
“We set up two different areas, one for people coming out of the bar who had identification and one for those who didn’t,” Steube said. “We had ICE with us and several vans and we started running names. We had so many people who did not have proper ID that we filled the vans and had to let people go.
“ICE does not have the manpower for everyone we can identify,” Steube added.
Bennett said he didn’t talk to Steube or Knight before announcing his plans for the bill, but he did talk to the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee and the state’s criminal justice department.
Bennett says Arizona’s law is the unfortunate — but necessary — result of a U.S. federal government that has dragged its feet for years on the issue of closing America’s borders, forcing states to enforce federal immigration law.
He says he has empathy for immigrants who come to the United States, and want to learn the language, adhere to the Pledge of Allegiance and serve in the military.
“I don’t want to stop people who want to bring body, soul and heart,” Bennett said. “But the ones here for free medical, to do crime and drain our social services are the ones I have a problem with.”
Bennett said he has tried for three years to introduce legislation to deport illegal immigrants who have committed crimes directly out of local jails and has been unable to get such bills passed.
“It is time we do something,” he said. “There’s enough interest now. Immigration is huge on people’s minds. No other country would permit what we are permitting. I say we defy the feds and put them on a plane, even send someone to escort them.”
There may be as many as 18,000 migrant farmworkers in Manatee, industry experts estimate. Immigrant workers tile roofs and are construction site laborers in Manatee and Sarasota. They mow lawns, cut weeds and replace sod. They pick and plant strawberries, tomatoes and corn. They bus tables and wash dishes.
They also rent rooms by the score, said Bob Spencer, vice president of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, where immigrant workers are essential.
Spencer fears an Arizona-type immigrant bill in Florida would take immigrants out of the workplace.
“I understand the frustration that so many people have with what appears to be borders that are open in a time of national concern,” Spencer said. “But I am also in an industry that is unable to find sufficient workers to bring in the harvest and to the plant the crops we need to feed our country.”
Spencer stresses that his company hires workers only with legal documentation.
These workers do jobs he can’t find Americans to do: picking tomatoes off vines, planting young tomatoes and tying tomato plants to stakes.
Each case important
Keith Campbell, a Bradenton resident whose wife, Akiko, and two sons were delayed eight months in moving here from Japan by “callous” U.S. immigration officials, says any Arizona-style immigration law would cast all immigrants without proper documents into “the same bucket.”
In his book, “DENIED!”, Campbell writes about his family’s 10-year journey through the U.S. immigration system.
U.S. immigration officials said Akiko Campbell improperly entered the U.S. in 1998 on a fiance visa, although she was told by the U.S. embassy that it would be no problem to do that.
She was already married to Campbell but their marriage visa was late.
Keith Campbell believes that if the immigration officials who handled their case had been allowed to use common sense, the separation of their family could have been prevented.
“There needs to be some semblance of compassion on issues regarding illegal aliens,” said Campbell. “Tying up resources to deport people who virtually did nothing wrong is unthinkable. These people are all being thrown in the same bucket.
“Immigration is a complex issue,” Campbell said, “but these laws would approach it as if it is all black or white.”
Reporter Sara Kennedy and East Manatee Editor Jim Jones contributed to this report.