Josh Hafenbrack and Elizabeth Baier, Sun-Sentinel (Palm Beach), April 2, 2008
A Legislature reluctant to tackle immigration policy in an election year made its first foray into the issue Tuesday with a proposal to kick out of the country illegal immigrants in Florida’s prisons who volunteer to be deported.
Even that measure, approved on a bipartisan vote in its first Senate committee stop, is billed by supporters more as a cost-saving measure than a bid to crackdown on illegal immigrants.
With the Legislature’s annual lawmaking session half over, the hot-button issue of illegal immigration has largely been absent from the agenda. Bills to deny illegal immigrants state benefits such as food stamps and require companies to verify the legal status of employees have been idled as state legislators have dealt with a $3 billion budget shortfall.
The Senate bill (SB1086), which cleared the Criminal Justice Committee by unanimous vote Tuesday, would allow for deportation of the estimated 5,000 illegal immigrants in Florida prisons, as long as they’ve served 50 percent of their sentences and agree to be deported. Similar laws in New York and Arizona saved the states $141 million and $13 million in inmate costs from 2005 to 2007, respectively.
Some maintain Florida should do nothing. Courtney Strickland, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said, “It’s not a great idea to have a patchwork of laws and policies across the states.”
But lawmakers also face pressure from opposing groups that advocate a much harder line against immigrants—groups that are stepping up their activity in a campaign season, said Ann Morse, an immigration expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One such effort comes from a group called Border Control Now, which is airing an Internet ad accusing Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, R- West Miami, of blocking bills targeting illegal immigrants. Rubio spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said she hadn’t seen the ad.