Immigration issues impacting Fla. politics
Published: Monday, June 10, 2013 at 9:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 10, 2013 at 9:47 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Immigration — a tough issue for state Republican leaders to navigate — is surging to the forefront in Florida again.
The latest triggers for turmoil are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's efforts to push an immigration overhaul bill through the Senate in the next few weeks and Gov. Rick Scott's recent veto of a bill that would have allowed children of immigrants who may not have the necessary documents to be in the U.S. legally to obtain a driver's license.
With a growing Hispanic population — the nation's third-largest — and a conservative base that holds a generally negative view of loosened immigration policies, GOP leaders could find the going even trickier in coming months. The issue will continue to infuse Florida politics, with implications for the 2014 governor's race as well as the 2016 presidential contest.
Nonetheless, many top Florida Republican leaders see the resolution of the immigration issue as a critical goal, while the Democrats continue to increase their support among the growing number of Hispanic voters in the nation's largest presidential swing state.
The numbers are clear.
Last year, President Barack Obama won Florida for the second time, with a 60 percent to 39 percent ratio among Latino voters. It was an improvement over Obama's 57-42 percent ratio in 2008.
More significantly, the percentage of Hispanic voters voting for a president in Florida rose from 14 percent to 17 percent last year in Florida's electorate.
One of the main hurdles facing Republican leaders are tea party members and other conservative groups that have already slammed Rubio's co-sponsorship of the reform bill, likening it to an "amnesty" plan for unauthorized immigrants in the country.
Another political obstacle is the different constituencies that statewide leaders represent compared with individual lawmakers, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
"The problem has always been that legislators represent narrower, more homogenous districts than people who run statewide," MacManus said.
She said it will be hard for the Florida GOP to remain "cohesive" as statewide policies clash with the politics of the smaller, more conservative regions.
"No question about it. It will be an issue that will be very difficult for the Republican Party of Florida to come to a consensus on," MacManus said.
Scott under fire
Democrats pounced on Scott for vetoing the bill, casting him as an "anti-Hispanic" politician out of step with the state.
Scott ran as an immigration hardliner in 2010, favoring an "Arizona-style" immigration policy, though he has not aggressively pursued such a plan.
"The governor is completely out of touch with who we are as a state and has blatantly turned his back to our Latino community," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who will hold a news conference today in Tampa to continue to criticize Scott over his veto.
Scott said he rejected the bill — which passed with only two negative votes in the Legislature — because it was based on a policy from the Obama administration granting temporary rights to children of unauthorized immigrants, rather than on a law passed by Congress.
Scott also noted that the young drivers could still get a permit under existing state policy for temporary licenses.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. Senate and House prepare to debate immigration legislation, four prominent Florida Republican leaders — former Gov. Jeb Bush, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel — have endorsed a newspaper and online campaign that calls for immigration reform.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has sidestepped the debate on the federal immigration bill, although a majority of attorneys general from around the country are supporting the legislation.
"I haven't even weighed in on it yet," Bondi told reporters last week. She said she has been focused on other issues, including the legislation allocating $200 million in mortgage settlement funding. "I'd be glad to get back with you at a later date," she said.
Putnam, who was attending a conference in New Orleans on Monday, was not available to expand on his support for Rubio's efforts, his aides said.
An ad campaign — financed by GOP strategist Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS group — says Rubio's evolving immigration bill is "an important starting point toward rebuilding America's dysfunctional, porous immigration system."
But even the ad says "the road ahead won't be easy," as lawmakers try to find an agreement that will somehow improve border security, deal with some 11 million unauthorized immigrants and provide easier access to high-tech foreign workers.
As if to underscore the point, Floridians for Immigration Enforcement has put up a billboard on Interstate 75 south of Ocala urging voters to call Rubio because his bill would allow the importation of 33 million foreign workers over the next decade. "Tell him AMERICANS need those jobs!," the sign says.
A second sign is scheduled to be erected in Jacksonville this week, said Jack Oliver, legislative director for the group, which is associated with the national network of groups aligned with the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Oliver, who has called the bill an "Armageddon for the American workforce," said enforcement of existing immigration laws trumps party politics.
"I think it's a financial liability for the American workers," said Oliver, who has worked in the construction industry since 1968 and said he has seen the increasing use of "illegal workers" erode wages and eliminate jobs for citizens. "I don't care about the Republican Party. I'm a Republican myself. I care about America."
MacManus said younger Hispanic voters will be a critical factor.
She said Scott's decision on the driver's license bill, as well as a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court to deny a law license to an unauthorized immigrant who graduated from a state law school, may add to the GOP's difficulties.
"I think it's the children of immigrants issue that poses the biggest problem for the Republicans," she said.
Scott could seek to improve his party's standing among Hispanic voters in his coming selection of a new lieutenant governor. Some prominent Hispanics have been mentioned, including state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
But Oliver said his group is equally disappointed in Scott as his members are with Rubio.
Oliver, who said he met personally with Scott during his 2010 campaign, said the governor promised tougher immigration laws, including increased use of the E-verify system for Florida businesses.
Oliver said Scott has done "diddly-squat" about the issue since taking office. He said Scott and other leaders appear more interested in allowing unauthorized workers because of the Florida business interests "that use that cheap labor."
While Oliver acknowledged his members are not likely to vote for Democrats, he said they could take their support to other candidates representing groups like the tea party or constitutional organizations.
"These guys think they're the lesser of the two evils and we're going to continue to vote for them," Oliver said. "But I'm telling you as a very active citizen, I'm done with these guys."