State Politics

PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Bennett plans Arizona-style immigration bill

MANATEE — State Sen. Mike Bennett is in the process of drafting an Arizona-style legislative bill designed to ensure immigration laws are enforced in Florida, and “to stop our government officials from turning a blind eye to illegal immigration,” he said Thursday.

The Bradenton Republican plans to file the bill for consideration during the Florida Legislature’s session next spring, he said.

Its provisions will be modeled after a controversial new Arizona law already facing a legal challenge.

The Florida version would allow police who make a lawful stop, detention or arrest, or while enforcing another law, to require information regarding citizenship if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an illegal alien, according to the Bradenton Republican’s office.

Additionally, it would permit law enforcement agencies to take illegal aliens into federal custody, according to Bennett’s office.

“We have too many people in our country here illegally, and it’s costing us in our social services, billions of dollars, and also costing us lost employment,” Bennett explained Thursday in a telephone interview.

The proposal might also solve some of the difficulties posed by gangs, said Bennett, who has previously filed bills on the topic of immigration.

“We have a lot of illegals participating in these gangs, in the narcotics areas,” he said. “We need to get a handle on it.”

He emphasized that his purpose is not to stop immigration altogether.

“Our country is steeped in the strength and diversity of its immigrants,” Bennett said. “In fact, it is about honoring all those immigrants from all the years past who were committed to becoming American citizens under the laws of this country.

“... Our country is a land of immigrants, and the melting pot that we represent is also our strength; we welcome all who are willing to follow the law and do what is required to become legal American citizens,” he added.

The new Arizona law requires police investigating another incident or crime to ask people about their immigration status if there’s a “reasonable suspicion” they’re in the country illegally. It also makes being in Arizona illegally a misdemeanor, and it prohibits seeking day-labor work along the state’s streets.

The Obama administration sued Arizona on Tuesday to throw out the state’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law and keep other states from copying it.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Phoenix said the law, due to take effect July 29, usurps the federal government’s “pre-eminent authority” under the Constitution to regulate immigration.

Bennett’s proposal, which is still in the drafting stage, drew the ire of C.J. Czaia, a Bradenton attorney and former chair of the Manatee County Democratic Party, who said he was deeply disappointed to hear about Bennett’s bill.

“It’s racial profiling and discrimination against one group. If you’re brown and speak Spanish, you are the ones. It’s unconscionable, un-American and the worst kind of discrimination,” Czaia said.

Many of those without legal documents were brought to the United States by their parents, Czaia said. “What crime did these children commit?”

The people targeted are the same ones who harvest America’s crops, work in restaurants and gardens, raise children, and help defend the United States in its military, Czaia said.

“It’s an insult and racist, and the courts will not allow it to stand,” Czaia said.

Marvin Mills, secretary of the Manatee/Sarasota Farmworker Supporters, said that the Arizona law discriminates against Hispanics, is “mean-spirited, and has a very bad odor about it.”

“It’s an ugly movement, and shouldn’t happen to Florida,” Mills said.

State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said Florida already possesses some of the powers that Bennett’s proposal outlines.

“It’s a little-known fact that we’re already empowered in Florida to stop people on the suspicion of being illegal immigrants,” Fitzgerald said.

They can be detained 72 hours, during which they are turned over to the federal immigration customs agency for processing, Fitzgerald said, adding, “It’s a federal program initiated in response to 9/11.”

“Florida was one of the first states to join in,” he said. However, when police began stopping people, the federal agency became overwhelmed with its increased case load, and rarely followed up, Fitzgerald said.

“That points to the real source of the problem,” he said. “The federal government has not been enforcing the law. I would suggest that as a solution to the problem.”

— The Associated Press and Bradenton Herald East Manatee Editor James A. Jones Jr. contributed to this report.