Lawmakers receive reports on immigration issue

Published: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 8:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 8:17 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A three-hour workshop briefing for lawmakers on complex U.S. immigration law raised doubts Monday as some questioned the impact on the state's tourism industry if the state legislature sides with new GOP leaders who favor a tougher stance against illegal immigrants.

New Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi both favor stronger immigration laws akin to one in Arizona, although one speaker warned that a similar measure in Florida could damage public relations and likely hurt the state's tourism industry.

"We're frustrated," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, "What's a state to do?"

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has filed an Arizona-style bill that would let police, during a legal stop or arrest, ask for a detainee's immigration documents if an officer suspects the individual is in the country illegally.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, meanwhile, issued a statement saying it strongly opposes such legislation. The ACLU also is against requiring businesses to use a federal database to check the status of new hires and subjecting illegal immigrants who commit crimes to harsher penalties than legal immigrants or U.S. citizens.

Lawmakers were told that as many as 725,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Florida, three times more than in 1990. The state prison system houses 5,641 of those undocumented immigrants and 80,000 are enrolled in public schools.

Robert Lord, vice president and chief legal officer for the Martin Memorial Health System in South Florida told about the millions of dollars the hospital spends treating undocumented patients.

Thrasher and two other Republican colleagues, Sen. Alan Hays of Umatilla and Bennett, zeroed in on the presenters.

"My sense right now is we have a real need for some quick action," Hays said.

"More questions than we have answers," conceded Sen. Anitere Flores, the Senate's Judiciary Committee chair. She moderated the session designed to provide information on the subject before lawmakers attempt to tackle policy issues.

"This is such an emotionally charged issue," Flores said. "We should not make hasty decisions."

Bennett asked about the possibility of jettisoning felons early from prison via deportation to reduce the state's costs.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, hoped for at least three sessions on the immigration issue, but the next two have yet to be scheduled.

"Solutions and proposals need to be brought by the states," said Florida International University law professor Ediberto Roman. "That is a problem that states and the federal government have been dealing with for a century."

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