TALLAHASSEE — Communities in Florida that are considered "sanctuaries" for undocumented immigrants, including four counties in the Tampa Bay area, would have to do away with those practices or risk fines and other state penalties under controversial legislation that passed its first committee this week.
If the bill becomes law, county and local law enforcement agencies would also be required — at local taxpayers' cost with no guarantee of reimbursement — to comply with federal immigration detention requests, which are currently only optional.
Although the proposal (HB 697) easily advanced out of the House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee on Monday by a 9-5 vote, it drew unanimous opposition from at least 20 audience members who spoke, including immigrant advocates.
All five Democrats on the committee voted against it, including Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg, and Sean Shaw of Tampa. Zephyrhills Republican Rep. Danny Burgess and Tampa Republican Reps. Shawn Harrison and Jackie Toledo supported it. The bill has two more committee hearings before it could reach the House floor.
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said federal immigration law has no teeth that mandates states comply with enforcement, and his bill would bring "meaning and effect" to immigration laws, in Florida at least.
"This bill does not attempt to impose another parallel system of immigration law in Florida," Metz said. It would make Florida "take it upon itself to say it has a role and responsibility in enforcing existing federal immigration law."
Citing data from the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors stricter policies, legislative analysts named six Florida counties that they determined weren't fully cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando are among the six.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri reiterated Tuesday that his agency cooperates with federal immigration authorities and that the information from CIS is inaccurate.
"It's very frustrating for me because there's an extensive false narrative of this information that just continues on this issue," he said.
Pinellas, along with several other Florida counties, stopped honoring ICE holds that were not accompanied with probable cause after a series of federal court decisions determined detainer requests were not grounded in law.
The federal agency changed its policy to where requests are accompanied by a deportation order, warrant or probable cause determination — and Pinellas County has cooperated since, Gualtieri said.
Hillsborough also fully cooperates with ICE, said sheriff's Col. Kenneth Davis, who oversees jail operations.
"If they have probable cause, we'll hold their person. And we do," Davis said.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office denied being a sanctuary county, pointing to a 2015 open letter from the department that called CIS' claim "absurd," "irresponsible" and "dangerous." In the letter, the Sheriff's Office said it only detains suspected illegal immigrants if probable cause exists that they committed a crime, a policy that's backed by case law and the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis is aware that the county is considered a sanctuary, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney. He's considering a response but hasn't yet made a decision on how to address it.
Metz's legislation has an array of specific impacts, including formally defining a "sanctuary policy," prohibiting governments from adopting them and requiring any existing policies to be repealed within three months — or else risk a fine of up to $5,000 a day.
The Legislature could withhold state grant funding for five years from governments that violate the proposed law, and the governor would also be empowered to remove any elected official who violates it.
Other provisions include requiring government officials and workers to report "known or probable violations" of the act — under threat of suspension or removal from elected office — and require the attorney general to investigate those reports. Whistleblowers who disclose violations would be explicitly protected.
Additionally, victims and their families would have the right to sue a government entity if its sanctuary policy gave a criminal the opportunity to commit a crime that would have otherwise been prevented had the policy not been in place.
In arguing for that provision, lawmakers repeatedly cite the highly publicized murder of Katie Steinle in San Francisco, but Metz offers no examples of similar cases in Florida. He said they're "trying to prevent that from happening in Florida."
Times staff writers Steve Contorno, Daniel DeWitt and Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByKristenMClark