The state bill on immigration enforcement announced over a week ago by state Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, and Attorney General Bill McCollum moved the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) to organize a press conference today with state politicians and religious and social leaders.

Maria Rodriguez of FLIC opened the press conference saying, “Florida is not Arizona, and we don’t need an anti-American, anti-immigrant legislation.”

Florida Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orange County, the chair of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, said,

Our initial concern is the impact of this legislation on tourism and on immigrants. This is an important issue for the black caucus. We need to protect civil rights and our economy.

If we have this legislation it should be fair so as not to violate civil rights. Immigration is a federal issue. We don’t want a hodge-podge legislation. The mature approach is to let the federal government take the lead.

State Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, the minority House whip said,

If we are going to move in this direction we need to hold unscrupulous employers who hire and exploit workers and contractors who smuggle workers in containers accountable.

We have seen these abuses in Palatka, workers being paid with drugs, cases of sex trafficking. We need to address our state’s issues.

Sen. Hill added,

The future of the bill depends on the outcome of the November elections. It will be a contentious issue and Hispanic and black legislators will make sure that if it sees the light of day it will be fair. Sen. Bennett is in a key role so it will get a committee hearing.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has told TFI he supports Arizona-type legislation for Florida.

State Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Hispanic Caucus said, “I am the product if immigrant parents. I look forward to this debate in March if it is about security, but if it is about bigotry I will be disappointed with the bill’s proponents.”

State Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata, R-Miami, said,

I echo the words of all the representatives. In the House there will be a lot of debate on this issue. It is sad Arizona took this action but they have a border security issue, but we must differentiate border security and immigration. It is sad that people take advantage of popular sentiment to put forward this legislation.

We have a lot of Latin-American tourists. What message are we sending them? It also portrays Hispanics in a negative way; I find that troublesome.

The federal government has not taken action; President Obama has not kept his promise to address immigration reform in his first year of office. This bill is not right for Florida. I have confidence our legislature will do the right thing.

Mike Pheneger, board chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said,

The bill is unconstitutional and not necessary. It panders to our fears and worst inclinations.

It will affect not only undocumented immigrants as well as the economy. It will violate equal protection and due process. The bill gives authority to local law enforcement to stop people if there is reasonable suspicion they are here illegally. This will lead to racial profiling.

There are people in the military who will fall into the category of people who look like they are here illegally. There are 45,000 members of the military who are naturalized citizens.

We [the ACLU] are ready to go to court to file injunctive and permanent relief within 24 hours of the passage of this legislation.

Rev. Russell Meyer, from the Florida Council of Churches, said,

We are deeply concerned about legislation passed in Arizona and introduced in Florida.

People who look to the Bible understand we are an immigrant people, so is the history of the United States.

The church is called to work with people in the margins, who have no official voice. Many religious people work with undocumented immigrants. This [bill] would criminalize people who help their neighbor in need.

The Bible says you should not bear false witness. The positive side of this is that you should speak of your neighbor in a positive light. This legislation talks about our new neighbor in the worst way.

The speakers also addressed certain parts of the bill that would lead to more problems. “The proposal would force a police officer to enforce federal law and that is a very tricky area that could get an officer in trouble,” said Rep. Zapata.

Pheneger addressed how the bill states that “a person is presumed to be legally in the U.S.” if he or she shows proof of Canadian citizenship or a passport from “a visa waiver program country.” There are 36 countries in this program — all from Europe and Asia. Not one Latin-American country is included.

He said, “This is another aspect of racial profiling. And a criminal suspect can be charged more harshly if here illegally.”

Siplin added that “any bill that replicates this in Florida has a problem because in my district 80 percent of Latinos are Puerto Rican, who are U.S. citizens. We [the legislature] don’t want to be on the side of racial issues.”

Zapata added, “We need to start changing the way we advocate for immigration reform.”

“Immigration reform has been badly needed for some time,” said Rev. Meyer, echoing Zapata’s point. “Immigration is the result of other policies like trade issues; it is one piece of a large puzzle. Our imbalance in trade has destroyed farming communities in Mexico and Central America. Many people come here to get enough to go back and buy some land and farm again.”

“We need to change the political nature of the conversation of who we welcome in this country,” he continued. “We need to go back to moral basics about what it means to not walk down the street in fear.”

Pheneger concluded, “This legislation nurtures fear, makes law enforcement harder. Overall I think this is a terrible thing for Florida. We need to be more sensible.”

Zapata addressed the question of a possible Hispanic voter backlash, saying,

Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans are not affected by immigration, so they will vote by party line. I don’t see Hispanic Republicans voting for a Democrat because of the immigration issue.

Most Hispanics support what’s happened in Arizona. The message has been framed to say these people broke the law, they shouldn’t be here.

Hispanic voters are concerned about the economy and education. How Republicans talk about immigration, if they continue to come across as angry, may shift voters.

Maria Rodriguez closed the press conference saying, “The immigrant community is angry of being a political pawn for both parties. This law will not make us safer; it will lead to racial profiling and put ice on our tourism industry. FLIC will continue to work with a variety of partners to show that immigrants have been good for Florida”

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