Florida Republicans once worried that hardline immigration policies would alienate Hispanic voters and cost the party the nation’s biggest swing state. Then came Donald Trump, who carried Florida in 2016. Two years later, Gov. Ron DeSantis won election running as a Trump clone.
Now the GOP-led Legislature is heeding DeSantis’ call and poised to pass legislation cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities. The bill would mark a triumph for a wing of the party that has pushed to call the bluff of moderates and Democrats who have long predicted that anti-immigration policies would mean electoral catastrophe for Republicans.
“The last two elections were in part a referendum on the broken illegal immigration system,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “Both President Trump and Gov. DeSantis ran on platforms of fixing a broken illegal immigration system and being strong under the law.”
Democrats and advocates for immigrants have sharply criticized the proposed legislation, which would ban "sanctuary" or "safe" cities, municipalities that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials. They’ve invoked the national controversy over immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border by labeling the measure a “family separation bill,” a callous political ploy and "spiritual evil."
Supporters of the measure say it would affect only individuals charged with a crime.
“This is a political game by our opposition,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat. “This is not about safety and security. … My opponents can say I voted for illegal aliens. That’s what this is about.”
Ingoglia said that Democrats opposed to the bills “are arguing against the will of the voters and the people here in the state of Florida.”
The Republican Party has had a tangled history with immigration in a state where nearly 26 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau.
Former Gov. Rick Scott used immigration enforcement as a successful campaign strategy in 2010, pummeling his primary opponent as weak on the issue. But an effort to push anti-immigration legislation in the 2011 legislative session fell apart amid acrimonious Republican infighting.
And Scott himself flipped on immigration. In 2014 he signed into law two bills that aimed to assist immigrant families, including one that allowed children of undocumented immigrants to pay the same tuition rate as state residents. A number of Republicans, especially those in the Florida House, voted against the proposals.
House Republicans, citing the 2015 shooting of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant, have for the last several years pushed bills targeting sanctuary cities, but they’ve failed to gain traction in the Senate.
That changed this year with the arrival of DeSantis and turnover in the Senate, which saw an exodus of moderate Republicans from south Florida. Shepherded by Sen. Joe Gruters, who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, the measure to ban sanctuary cities is expected to pass between now and the scheduled end of session May 3.
Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said she plans to vote against the bill because of its “perceived message” to immigrants and Hispanics. But Flores might be the lone GOP opponent.
The bill would prohibit localities from implementing sanctuary policies in Florida even though there are currently no designated sanctuary cities in the state. It would also call on local authorities to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Local elected officials could be subject to penalties if they adopt sanctuary policies.
Democrats assert that the proposal will lead to an increase in deportations and that immigrants in the state illegally will refuse to report crimes in their communities.
Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican, said critics have dramatically overstated the potential impact of the bill.
“No one is requiring law enforcement to go out and ask for their papers,” Byrd said.
Democrats have consistently said there is no real need for the bills even as they’ve ratcheted up their opposition.
“Nobody is talking about sanctuary cities,” said Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “People aren’t looking to Tallahassee to solve a fake problem caused by Fox News and Donald Trump.”
Screven Watson, a lobbyist, political strategist and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said Democrats have to loudly voice their objection to the bill even though its passage seems assured.
“What are Democrats up here if they don’t stand up on issues like this?" said Watson, who said the bill is all about “red meat” for the Trump base.
Gruters, who was co-chairman of Trump’s Florida campaign in 2016, has brushed aside criticism that the legislation was aimed at satisfying the Republican base ahead of next year’s election.
“If that was the case we would wait until 2020,” Gruters said. “That proves it is not political.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine