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Activists: Bennett immigration bill is profiling

BRADENTON -- An Arizona-style immigration reform bill filed by state Sen. Mike Bennett will lead to racial profiling of Hispanics and cost Florida billions, civil rights activists told the Manatee County legislative delegation Tuesday.

Bradenton attorney C.J. Czaia and county Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Richard O’Brien urged Bennett and six other state legislators to reject proposals that allow police to demand citizenship documentation while enforcing other laws.

Czaia, an American citizen raised in what is now Sri Lanka, said Bennett’s bill would encourage racial profiling by giving law enforcement the power to seek citizenship papers for “reasonable suspicion.”

That could ensnare people just because they have brown skin or speak Spanish, he said.

It would lead potential tourists from Mexico, Central America and South America to abandon Florida as a destination and cripple businesses that depend on immigrant labor, according to Czaia.

“Not all are going to follow the intent of Sen. Bennett’s bill. The fear is some law enforcers will go beyond what the law would allow,” Czaia said.

An exchange between Bennett and O’Brien, a USF Sarasota-Manatee professor, became heated during the delegation meeting.

Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he submitted the bill, Senate Bill 136, to get Florida leaders talking about immigration issues and give him control of the direction of legislation.

But O’Brien said innocent people -- like those in the U.S. illegally because their parents brought them here -- will be unfairly targeted if they happen to be in a car when it is stopped by law enforcement.

“What do you do for the other people in the car? ... I ask you respectfully to completely withdraw Senate Bill 136,” O’Brien said.

Bennett fired back, “I don’t know how many times I have to say this: This is not a racial profiling bill. ... If you let me do what I do and do what I do well, there will not be a racial profiling bill. We have no idea how it’s going to come out the back end.”

In Bennett’s bill, police who make a lawful stop, detention or arrest, or while enforcing another law, would be able to require information regarding citizenship if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an illegal alien.

It also would permit law enforcement agencies to take illegal aliens into federal custody.

State Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, has discussed sponsoring his own immigration reform legislation in the House but has yet to file a bill. As proposed, Snyder’s bill would make it a state crime for non-U.S. residents to fail to carry alien registration documentation.

About 100 people, including members of a new faith-based activist group from Sarasota called Unidos Now, gathered in front of the county courthouse before Tuesday’s delegation meeting to pray about the immigration issue, Czaia said.

Many of the Unidos Now members sat in on Czaia’s presentation to the delegation, wearing blue T-shirts with the words United Against Racism on the back.

“I respect Sen. Bennett,” Czaia said after the meeting. “He’s a shrewd political figure. Our goal is to reach out to educate everybody.

“Sen. Bennett is genuine. He always has been. I don’t think he’s a racist in any way, but people are perceiving him that way.”

Arizona politicians have been criticized for the immigration law it passed this past spring. The most controversial part of the bill is the reasonable suspicion clause.

President Barack Obama has ordered the Justice Department to monitor the situation in Arizona for possible civil rights violations.

Czaia and Bennett may have found common ground in the Utah Compact, a guideline to immigration reform that stresses the federal role in enforcement and recognizes the needs of law enforcement, families, the economy and the society at large. Both men say they support the tenets of the compact.

Several leaders of community groups and governments made presentations before the delegation. Sens. Bennett, Nancy Detert and Arthenia Joyner and Rep. Darryl Rouson joined freshman Reps. Greg Steube, Jim Boyd and Ray Pilon on the dais.

The most innovative presentation came from PACE Center for Girls. To illustrate the center’s mission, Executive Director Amy Wick Mavis interviewed a high school girl, Jessica, about how the program helped her out of a bad home life and provided her direction. Jessica is studying to become a nurse.

Manatee County Commission Chair Carol Whitmore spoke for the county. She didn’t ask the state legislators for any additional funding because “the state’s budgetary woes are even more significant than our own.”

“Instead of requesting funding in specific areas, we have simply asked you to protect funding in essential areas such as beach renourishment and libraries and hopefully to eventually restore funding in affordable housing programs,” Whitmore said.

Bennett said the state’s budgetary constraints -- the latest projection places the deficit at $3.62 billion -- muted requests for funding.

He hopes the state will combine resources, especially in the area of children’s programs, where there is a duplication of services.

“The public pretty much understands the situation with the money,” Bennett said. “They might not like the reality that it will involve the consolidation of services to make sure we’re making the most from their tax dollars.”

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