TALLAHASSEE -- House Republicans sent mixed signals to Florida's immigrants Wednesday as one committee unanimously passed a bill to accept federal money to provide health insurance to 45,000 legal immigrant children, while two other committees passed measures that crack down on migrants who are in the state illegally.
Farm and domestic workers from Homestead to Tampa appeared at the House Civil Justice Committee to urge lawmakers to reject HB 675 by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, that would impose penalties of up to $5,000 a day on police, school and other local officials who fail to detain migrants facing deportation orders.
The protestors then crowded into the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee to oppose HB 9 by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, that would make it a felony for people to defy federal deportation orders.
Despite the protests, and impassioned pleas from children and elders, both committees approved the bills along party-line votes with Democrats in opposition.
The group warned that the bills will harm the ability of law enforcement to earn the trust of immigration communities, unnecessarily divide families and lead to massive costs for local governments.
Gaby Garcia-Vera of the Florida Latina Advocacy Network in Miami spent nearly an hour translating the testimony of many of the workers and family members who came to the hearing.
"This is my family," he said. "This is what Florida looks like when you invest in people and say they have dignity and we hope that you stand with us and fight against efforts to separate us and criminalize our families and seek to destroy the communities that we have helped build."
Pamela Gomez with the Florida Immigrant Coalition in Tampa said that although she is an American citizen from the Dominican Republican, members of her family are undocumented and she lives in constant fear they could be detained or deported.
"As an African-American woman every day I go out into a community and when I see people with uniforms, I don't know they are going to deceive me or treat me with dignity," Gomez said. "I fear for my parents. I fear for my brothers. my sisters and everyone behind me, and that should not be a fear that I live with."
Metz said that while the appeals "pull at the heart strings," his bill was designed to strengthen the "rule of law."
"If we are going to have a porous border, people are getting here without a legal system, and when they get to our state we are saying we want the laws enforced," Metz said.
He cited the murder of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco last July by a man who had been deported to Mexico five times and who has confessed to shooting her.
"That should never happen anywhere, and the intent of this bill is to make sure it never happens in the state of Florida," Metz said.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava urged the committee to "honor the dignity and discretion of our local law enforcement to detain when necessary for public safety" and said that the decision by the county to limit its cooperation with federal immigration authorities is "saving the county $1 million per year."
Miami-Dade adopted the policy against complying with federal immigration detention rules in 2013 because the jail had to bear most of the detention costs, and police feared the detentions would deter victims and witnesses of crimes in immigrant communities from coming forward. Under the policy, the county won't hold detainees for 48 hours to allow immigration officials to pick them up, unless there is a warrant for an arrest.
Six other counties -- Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Palm Beach and Broward -- have enacted policies that also do not enforce federal deportation orders without a warrant.
Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said Metz's measure will put law enforcement, children and the public at risk because it subjects police to "punitive measures if they fail to report" and "what was once trust will become fear and anxiety."
"People will be afraid to deal with the police. Crime victims, domestic-violence victims, human-trafficking victims, witnesses to a crime, even reporting a crime, will have a chilling effect based on this bill," she said.
The mood was different in the House Health Innovation Subcommittee where Republicans ended their resistance to taking federal money for the uninsured and unanimously approved HB 89, which could draw as much as $30 million in federal Medicaid money to pay for healthcare for uninsured legal immigrant children.
The bill, by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, would steer the federal assistance through the state's Kidcare program. While it does not expand Medicaid, it could help offset the cost of uncompensated care borne by hospitals.
As many as 32,000 children could be eligible, and while some estimates say the cost to the state will be $500,000 other estimates predict it will result in a net savings of $230,000.
The federal government gives states the option of insuring lawfully residing immigrant children and waiving the traditional five-year waiting period for public assistance. Despite these numbers, Florida Republicans have refused to insure these children until now. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said in his speech to the House chamber on the opening day of the session Tuesday that he believed it was time to pass the bill long-sought by Diaz and Garcia.
"These are kids that are here legally, who went through the system, whose parents worked hard to come here the right way to this country," Diaz told the committee.
"Yet the broken immigration system rewards them with the same emergency room care" as someone who is not here legally, he said. "What message does Florida send to those who go through the proper immigration channels?"
He predicted that by offering primary and preventive care to uninsured children at the earliest ages, the measure would "save the lives of tens of thousands of people across the state."
"If there's one kid in Florida that we could help for this bill, we're doing a damn good job," he said.