BRADENTON -- About 100 people turned out Thursday morning in downtown Bradenton to oppose Arizona-style immigration laws, holding signs that read “Education not Deportation” and “End Discrimination.”
The group met in front of the county’s historic courthouse, bearing American flags.
Organized by the Sarasota nonprofit called Unidos Now, they gathered an hour before the county legislative delegation was slated to assemble at 8 a.m. across the street at the County Administrative Center for its annual meeting.
“I am Hispanic. I’ve lived here 25 years, and have worked with the migrant population,” said Margarita Heideman, 66, a social worker from Bradenton, who attended the early-morning rally. “They’re the most loving, hard-working people, and I don’t think they deserve this harassment they’re getting.” Hugo Diaz, 40, a Bradenton landscaper, said through an interpreter that he sought “greater support for immigrants.”
“We recognize we are people who have come to work, not to hurt anyone,” he said. “We have come to help our family, and make of this nation a nation that is ours as well, because we are within it.”
When the legislative delegation meeting began, lawmakers were surprised to see dozens of people from the event across the street trooping inside to attend the hearing, which at one point was standing-room only.
The delegation’s task was to listen to what the public would like to see lawmakers do when the Florida Legislature convenes in January for the 2012 session.
Arizona’s law requires immigrants to carry registration documents at all times, and gives police broad power to question those they stop, detain or arrest when there is a reasonable suspicion they might be here illegally. However, a judge issued an injunction that halted its most controversial features.
There have been efforts in the Florida Legislature to adopt similar measures, which have been criticized as discriminatory.
Former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, now director of Unidos Now, told lawmakers that data show such laws are economically “really devastating” and would cripple agriculture in Florida.
He noted that 15 percent of Manatee County’s population, and 8 percent of Sarasota County’s, is Hispanic.
“Our task is specifically to work at the critical job of integration of our burgeoning, exploding hispanic community throughout Southwest Florida in the civic and cultural life of our communities,” Kirschner said.
“With such a significant and growing segment of our population, we would like to do a better job of engaging with you” on issues that affect hispanics, he said.
In answer to Kirschner, Sen. Nancy Detert said, “I’m happy to participate in civic integration, and I really don’t see any discrimination against Hispanics because of the proud history they have in the state of Florida, right from the beginning.”
“There is discrimination on the issue of whether they’re legal or illegal, and that’s going to be a continuing dialogue, and the state of Florida really doesn’t get to make up the rules on that, so that’s the elephant in the room, that’s the sticky wicket, and that’s what we have to work around.”
Also testifying was Manuel Chepote, past president of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce, who said, “These laws are bad for business.”
Should Hispanic tourists begin to see the state as “unwelcoming,” the hospitality industry would suffer; farmers and growers, whose workforce is 90 percent hispanic, would face difficulties harvesting their crops, he said.