Florida legislators are sending mixed messages on immigration. Three bills moving in the House reflect both compassion for immigrant children who need health care and callousness toward undocumented immigrants who fear deportation. Lawmakers are right to act on behalf of children's health, but deportation efforts should be left to the federal government.
Two bills could seriously complicate life for immigrant communities and the agencies that serve them. One bill, HB 675 by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, would fine police, school employees and other officials up to $5,000 a day for failing to detain immigrants who face deportation. Another bill, HB 9, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, would make it a third-degree felony to defy federal deportation orders. Both proposals put the onus on local officials to take a greater role in enforcing federal immigration laws. This would place an undue burden on local resources and widen an already dangerous divide between law enforcement and immigrant communities, where residents already are hesitant to report crimes or other dangerous behavior because they fear being forced out of the country.
On the bright side, another House committee has advanced a long-overdue plan to provide health care for immigrant children who are lawfully in the United States. The bill, HB 89, would use federal money to provide health care to immigrant children through Florida's KidCare program. The proposal, backed by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, would eliminate the five-year mandatory waiting period for children who are legally residing in Florida to become eligible for health care coverage. It smartly moves to redirect children from seeking treatment in emergency rooms to accessing less expensive preventive health care.
The two deportation bills are buoyed by a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric reflected in the Republican presidential primary campaign. Yet a study recently released by the American Immigration Council shows incarceration rates among native-born Americans far outpace those of immigrants.
During a surge in unauthorized immigration in the United States from 1990 to 2013, violent crime and property crime fell by more than 40 percent. By a large margin, immigrants are law-abiding and come to the United States to work toward a better future, the data show. It's past time that immigration policy and rhetoric line up with the facts. Tallahassee is a good a place to start.
The Republican-led Legislature can't have it both ways when it comes to treating immigrants fairly. They are right to remove the barriers to health care for immigrant children who live in this country legally. But it is nonsensical to show compassion and use common sense with respect to the children of immigrants while creating policies that stoke fear among their parents.
It also is unduly burdensome to hold local agencies responsible for enforcing immigration laws, especially in areas where officials have come up with reasonable, nonpunitive approaches to cooperating with immigration officials. Immigration issues should be addressed by Washington, not Tallahassee.