Approximately 200 farmworkers, students, religious leaders, immigrant advocates, and elected officials used a community forum in Florida City Thursday evening to say once again that they wholly reject the current immigration-enforcement bills proposed by Florida legislators.

“We are here to educate ourselves, to organize ourselves,” said Jonathan Fried, the executive director of We Count!, a community organization based in Homestead that works to achieve social and economic justice. The group hosted Thursday evening’s community forum in Florida City as part of a weeklong string of events “Against Racism and Exclusion.”

Every speaker repeated that immigrants are workers, not criminals, as well as consumers who pay taxes. But speakers insisted that right now in Homestead and Florida City it all boils down to this: If a person is undocumented, a civil infraction under current federal law, an arrest could lead to deportation.

Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said the “Immigration Enforcement Act” filed by state Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, and approved by House Judiciary Committee would grant local police immigration-enforcement authority during routine police investigations.

Rodriguez said that the state Senate’s bill, supported by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, would also grant local law enforcement immigration authority and,  like Snyder’s bill, impose E-Verify, a federal employee-verification system.

The Senate bill would force local law enforcement agencies to sign Section 287(g) agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aka ICE. That would allow police agencies to enforce federal immigration law.

Several speakers Thursday night said the problem is that police officers are already asking for immigration status, and, as Fried explained, Secure Communities, a federal fingerprinting verification program, is already in use in all 67 Florida counties. That means arrest can lead to deportation.

People who work in nurseries and farms in Homestead and Florida City said at the forum that they expect the federal government to deliver immigration reform and stop deportations.

But Marissa Franco of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network told the audience that “we are in a hard struggle.” “We need to defend our communities,” she said.

One woman said ICE is doing its job but doesn’t understand the pain the agency is causing.

Donatella, a We Count! member from Guatemala who declined to give her last name has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, raised four American-born children, and is now caring for her niece’s four children.

She told The Florida Independent that her niece’s home in Homestead was raided in August 2010 by police and that ICE told her to present herself to Krome North Service Processing Center, where authorities put an ankle monitor on her. Donatila said her niece could not get the necessary legal assistance and was deported to Guatemala.

“This is a great pain,” Donatila said. “This is not justice.”

In similar testimony, another woman said the children of her community will have to deal with the trauma of separation from their parents because of deportation.

John De Leon, an attorney with Chavez & De Leon, told the Independent that despite all efforts to fine-tune them, Snyder’s and Flores’ proposed immigration bills will face the same constitutional challenges that Arizona’s S.B.1070 law has faced.

De Leon added that these bills create an economic burden for the people of Florida, equal protection problems, and violations of due process. He said there is no way local police can avoid racial profiling in determining a person’s immigration status.

Miguel Bernal, a nursery worker, and We Count! a member told the Independent he has been stopped twice by Miami-Dade police in Homestead. On one occasion the officer asked for his driver’s license. The officer gave Bernal four tickets, one for driving on an expired license and the rest for not having insurance and registration despite the fact that he presented those documents.

Bernal said he can only imagine what will happen if the bills being discussed in Tallahassee become law, adding that several friends have been detained by the police, taken to jail, and deported. But Bernal emphasized that community members angry about the proposals must speak up. “They don’t talk about what is happening in the community,” he said. “They have to report what is happening. Whoever hears something like this has to report it. That is why we are here tonight.”

At the forum, Otis Wallace, the mayor of Florida City, said it is necessary to stop a civil infraction from becoming a crime. He also addressed the possibility of a detention center being built in Florida City.

Wallace said the prison will be there for criminals only, adding, “The city will rent land to build a jail for criminals and not for people who are undocumented.”

Wallace announced that he would take a resolution to ask the Senate not to pass the immigration bill to the Florida City Commission and then personally deliver it to the legislature in Tallahassee.

Jamil Rivers, spokesman for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, told participants that Moss sponsored a resolution approved by the commission “urging the Florida legislature not to pass immigration legislation similar to Arizona’s S.B. 1070.” But will legislators listen?

“We need to take this message to Tallahassee,” River said.

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