As Florida Republicans gear up for an effort to write and pass an immigration law in Florida based on Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070, Democrats here are questioning whether the two states’ concerns over illegal immigration are even comparable.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson: Part of S.B. 1070 “reminds me of South Africa, of apartheid” (pic by Mark Foley)

When Florida Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, announced last week he is in the process of crafting a bill based on 1070, many began early preparations for a debate that could shape this coming legislative session.

“Cleary it is going to be an issue, and it should be because I believe this is a problem,” says state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “While I am still forming my opinion, I think we need to take a measured response. It should not be a knee-jerk reaction that seeks to quell passions.”

Rouson also pointed to federal statistics that show the number of illegal immigrants has gone down in Florida in the last decade, while Arizona has seen a significant increase.

There are an estimated 720,000 undocumented immigrants currently in Florida — down from 800,000 in 2000 according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report. In Arizona during the same time frame the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona rose from 330,000 to 460,000.

Rouson acknowledges the two states’ illegal immigrant statistics are going in different directions, and expresses concern over being part of a “hodgepodge” of states crafting their own laws to deal with the problem. He did acknowledge, however, that the Republicans are in a strong position to get something passed in 2011.

“The fact is, Democrats don’t have the votes to stop it,” Rouson says of possible legislation. “But our voices must be heard, and I intend to be heard.”

Critics of the Arizona law say it will likely lead to racial profiling, and the U.S. Department of Justice sued Arizona in federal court seeking an injunction from a judge in order to prevent the law from taking effect. A hearing is set for this week. The law goes into effect in Arizona July 29.

The lawsuit filed last week contends the Arizona law “unconstitutionally interferes with the federal government’s authority to set and enforce immigration policy,” according to a DOJ statement announcing the suit.

Justice officials also warned against such laws spreading to other states. ”A patchwork of state and local policies would seriously disrupt federal immigration enforcement,” the statement reads. “Having enacted its own immigration policy that conflicts with federal immigration law, Arizona ‘crossed a constitutional line.’”

But even with justice officials opposing Arizona’s law, federal lawmakers will almost certainly fail to enact immigration reform this year, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“If you are asking me if we will pass an immigration bill this year the answer is no,” Nelson tells The Florida Independent.

Nelson questions whether Florida should craft legislation based on Arizona’s law, saying he believes immigration concerns in the two states are very different. As a state surrounded by water, Florida does not face the steady stream of illegal immigrants crossing the Arizona border at will, Nelson says.

“I just think that Florida and Arizona are not in the same situation,” he says.

Like Arizona lawmakers who expressed frustration over the federal government’s lack of immigration reform, state Sen. Bennett took aim at the federal government in announcing his proposed bill days after the feds filed the lawsuit.

“The goal of this bill,” Bennett says, “is to ensure that this country’s immigration laws are being enforced in Florida and to stop our government officials from turning a blind eye to illegal immigration.”

Frustration with the federal government’s failure to react to the outcry from states for immigration reform appears to be bipartisan thus far.

“This is a problem for the federal government,” Rouson says.

However, Rouson used strong words for measures in Arizona’s law that require the presentation of proof of citizenship should law enforcement suspect someone encountered during criminal or traffic stops is in the country illegally.

“That reminds me of South Africa, of apartheid, where you had to walk around with papers everywhere you go,” he says.

Some argue that allowing local law enforcement to investigate a person’s immigration status fits right into the natural progression of investigative tactics on the street.

“A part of a law enforcement officer’s job is to make routine stops and investigate the situation to see if further crimes are being committed,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Why should it be any different investigating whether someone is in the country illegally?”

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