Mark Schlakman: How Lawton Chiles confronted immigration problems

Published: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

Calls for boycotts continue to ring out in protest of Arizona's controversial immigration law while polls indicate a majority is supportive despite widely held concerns the state law would undermine otherwise effective community policing practices and promote racial profiling.

Meanwhile, candidates for the U.S. Senate and for governor in Florida have lined up on both sides of the issue.

Gov. Charlie Crist, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, Jeff Greene, CFO Alex Sink, Bud Chiles and even former Gov. Jeb Bush oppose the law. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio and Attorney General Bill McCollum opposed the law before supporting it, as amended, even though the changes failed to mollify its most ardent critics. Rick Scott is a zealous advocate for such a law in Florida.

Back in Arizona, the state's tourism industry is scrambling to mitigate the damage. Florida tourism officials and businesses engaged in commerce and international trade should pay close attention.

By contrast, former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles implemented a broad range of initiatives during the 1990s to minimize the burden that Florida taxpayers shouldered attributable to the federal government's failure to adequately enforce U.S. immigration laws, which included a landmark agreement with the then-U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to expedite the removal (deportation) of approximately 500 nonviolent criminal aliens in Florida Department of Corrections custody, avoiding tens of millions of dollars in incarceration costs. (For an overview of Chiles’ immigration initiatives, visit: and click on "Governor Years.")

When California passed Proposition 187, a ballot resolution to prohibit undocumented foreign nationals from accessing health care, public education and other social services, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed executive orders to implement the measure. Chiles opposed similar measures in Florida notwithstanding 80-plus percent approval in preliminary polling. Federal courts intervened. California’s ballot resolution was overturned.

It is well established that only Congress can pass laws regulating immigration, the federal government is responsible for the enforcement of immigration laws and federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over immigration matters. Generally, federal law preempts conflicting state law.

While border security and enforcement have received increased emphasis during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the goal of securing the southwest border is elusive and federal enforcement of U.S. immigration laws has been uneven at best and sometimes misplaced over the years.

Apart from questions relating to the Arizona immigration law’s constitutionality, its practical value is suspect given that state officials cannot compel their federal counterparts to take undocumented foreign nationals into custody or to initiate removal proceedings against them.

Moreover, it blurs the distinction between criminals more likely to pose a public safety threat and all other undocumented foreign nationals.

One thing is clear. Frustration resonating in Arizona and in other states experiencing high levels of uncontrolled migration cannot be ignored. In the absence of Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform (something that Democratic and Republican majorities alike failed to deliver over the past two decades) there may be times and circumstances that call for state officials to act even though the federal government is responsible for enforcement of immigration laws.

But state action alone will not secure our nation’s borders, prevent employers from exploiting undocumented workers to drive down prevailing wages while establishing a mechanism to allow an appropriate number of temporary workers from abroad to respond to seasonal/domestic market imperatives, or create a path for millions of undocumented foreign nationals living in the shadows to adjust to lawful status without granting special advantage over those who followed the rules.

President Obama must press for balanced and effective legislation from Capitol Hill and Congress must step-up to fix our broken immigration system. The challenge for state officials in the interim will be to formulate strategies that can achieve meaningful outcomes.

Almost 12 years after his death, there still is much that can be learned from the old he-coon.

Mark Schlakman is a lawyer and serves as senior program director at The Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He served as special counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles and was a consultant/special advisor to Bush administration U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Emilio Gonzalez from 2007 to ’08.

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