The Florida House of Representatives voted Wednesday to require local officials to comply with federal immigration authorities, a move that brings the Republican-controlled state government to the cusp of enacting one of the nation's most stringent laws against "sanctuary cities."
The House legislation, which passed in a 69-47 vote, would bar local governments from ignoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests — known as detainers — for local jails to hold suspected undocumented immigrants until federal authorities take them into custody. It also mandates that local agencies use their "best efforts to support federal immigration law" and threatens a fine of up to $5,000 per day for entities that violate the law.
A Florida Senate committee approved similar legislation last week. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who made the issue a central issue in his campaign last year, has been urging senators to act on the bill before the state's legislative session ends next week.
While the definition of sanctuary cities varies, most analysts say Florida does not have any.
The bill has become a top priority for Florida Republicans in recent weeks, as they have been eager to support DeSantis and President Donald Trump, who has threatened to release migrants into sanctuary cities that do not comply with ICE detainer requests. The Trump administration also has vowed to withhold law enforcement grants from localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“This bill is about public safety and making sure we remove the criminal element of illegals that are here,” said State Sen. Joe Gruters, sponsor of the Senate legislation and chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “The president has a laser focus on the failures of Washington in terms of immigration policy, and I think that has made this effort easier.”
At least 25 states considered legislation dealing with sanctuary policies last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. One of them, California, enacted sweeping statewide legislation blocking law enforcement agencies from working with ICE to house undocumented immigrants who otherwise would not be held on local charges. Two other states, Iowa and Tennessee, enacted laws requiring local officials to comply with ICE requests.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month signed a law to cut off funding for local governments that refuse to cooperate with ICE requests. Several other states also have policies prohibiting sanctuary jurisdictions: Iowa, Tennesse, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A half-dozen more states are considering similar legislation this year.
But Florida — a state where 20 percent of the population is foreign born — has emerged as an especially emotional battle in the nationwide fight over those laws.
In recent weeks, a coalition of civil rights groups, social justice advocates, farmers, and state business leaders have teamed up to try to the block the state legislation. They argue that both the House and Senate bills are drafted so broadly that Florida law enforcement officials would in effect become deputies in Trump’s broader crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Earlier this month, the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a "travel alert," warning that the legislation would "put immigrants at risk of violence, potentially forcing victims and witnesses to stay silent for fear of deportation."
More than 120 Florida business leaders, ranging from a former chief executive of Carnival Cruise Line to leaders of home-building companies, signed an open letter to DeSantis and legislative leaders warning that the bills could cripple the state's robust economy.
"Immigrants represent over 25 percent of our workforce and employ over 500,000 fellow Floridians," the letter states. "It is their innovative spirit that keeps us moving forward. Anti-immigrant legislation will inflict long-lasting damage to the state of Florida."
According to a study last month by the Pew Research Center, Florida was home to 775,000 undocumented immigrants, about 4 percent of the population. Nearly 20 percent of the students in Florida schools have at least one parent who is undocumented, the study concluded. Only California and Texas are home to more undocumented residents.
After Trump threatened in 2017 to strip federal money from cities that refuse to help deport immigrants, Miami-Dade County was the first to halt the policy, even though 51.7 percent of residents are immigrants.
A Senate committee staff analysis found that the bill pending before the Florida Senate would require "any sanctuary policies currently in effect" to be repealed within 90 days after the bill becomes law.
Florida's attorney general could take civil action against state or local government entities, which advocates fear could make individual government employees liable for actions they make in support of an undocumented resident. Although most ICE detainers are good for 48 hours, advocates say the legislation infringes on the rights of undocumented immigrants by denying them due process.
"It is really unclear why this bill is necessary," said Ingrid M. Delgado, the associate for social concerns for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This bill goes much farther than federal law requires, and mandates compliance with every detainer request, even for those who have not been convicted of a crime."
The ACLU has been battling ICE over allegations that it incorrectly issued detainers on 420 U.S. citizens who had been held in the Miami-Dade County jail over the last two years.
State Rep. Mike Beltran, a Republican and a cosponsor of the House bill, dismissed concerns that the legislation could lead to more racial profiling or unfair treatment of detained citizens.
"I don't think we should be out hunting for anyone, but if we come across people, and we know by checking ID and through booking that they are not legally present in the United States, it would be an abdication of duty as elected officials" not to cooperate with ICE, Beltran said.
Similar laws have been challenged in other states. The Florida legislation comes two years after Texas lawmakers passed a state law ordering that local authorities cooperate with ICE. Under the law, the state could fine local governments up to $25,500 a day for refusing to cooperate with immigration agents. Elected or appointed officials also could lose their jobs, and sheriffs and other police officers could go to jail if they refused.
Last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued San Antonio on allegations that its police chief failed to turn over to ICE a dozen migrants found inside a tractor-trailer, instead handing them to Catholic Charities, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, San Antonio joined several of Texas’s largest cities, including Houston and Dallas, in challenging the state law in court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the law.
In Tennessee, Shelby County Attorney Marlinee Clark Iverson, whose jurisdiction includes Memphis, issued an opinion stating the county sheriff and jail officials did not need to comply with a new state law that sought to force compliance with ICE.
"It was so vague that anybody from [ICE], even a secretary or janitor, could call and say, 'Hold this person indefinitely,' for any of amount of time, perhaps forever," Iverson said.
As of January 2018, more than 760 jurisdictions are refusing to comply with ICE holds, an increase of 135 since Trump's inauguration, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, predicts even more states will take up legislation similar to Florida's in the coming months now that the appellate courts upheld Texas's statute.
"In my experience dealing with legislators, they don't want to be the guinea pigs," Vaughan said. "Texas won, so now they know they don't have to be."