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House Seeks Tough Stance On ‘Sanctuary’ Cities; Whether Any Exist In Fla. Up For Debate

Rep. Cord Byrd debates on the House floor.
Rep. Cord Byrd debates on the House floor.

A proposed ban on so-called sanctuary cities that would lead to tough penalties if local governments do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, including removal of local officials from their posts, is making its way through the Florida Legislature.

The measure was approved Wednesday by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on a 9-3 vote along party lines, giving momentum to a proposal that critics say would infringe on constitutional rights and disproportionately target non-violent undocumented immigrants arrested for misdemeanor crimes.

Republicans on the panel argued the bill is necessary to ensure a crime like the 2015 killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco does not happen in Florida. The undocumented immigrant who shot Steinle had been deported several times and had recently been released from a county jail.

Related: San Francisco Jury Finds Man Accused Of Killing Kate Steinle Not Guilty Of Murder

“We have undocumented people in our state who are afraid. But we have citizens who are afraid also,” Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, said. “If we don’t have the courage to take up bills like this and the next person is killed by an undocumented person, we’ll have people asking us why we didn’t pass this bill.”

The Florida Immigrant Coalition, a statewide coalition of more than 50 immigrant rights organizations, is adamantly opposed to the proposal.

“We do not believe that the job of local police is to act as immigration enforcement,” said Thomas Kennedy, Political Director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “The job of police is to make sure that our communities are safe and this bill would actually harm that. It would actually make communities less safe by eroding the trust between communities and local law enforcement.”

Kennedy said if this measure were to pass, non citizen victims and witnesses would be too scared of being deported to cooperate with police.

Despite the House passing a similar bill banning sanctuary cities for the past three years, Wednesday was the first time the chamber has heard the proposal this year.

Meanwhile, a watered-down version has sped through committees in the Senate this year, after Senate proposals died early in committees in previous years.

The Senate proposal, SB 168, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), does not include most of the sanctions for local governments. But Attorney General Ashley Moody would have the authority to file civil actions against local governments and law enforcement agencies that have policies impeding communication or information-sharing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The House bill, HB 527, sponsored by Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, would go further. It would allow Moody or state attorneys to seek injunctions against agencies that violate the state law by imposing penalties of at least $1,000 for each day a “sanctuary policy” is in place and allowing people to sue local governments or law enforcement agencies if they have freed undocumented immigrants who injured the people or killed loved ones.

Local policymakers who approve sanctuary policies could also be removed from office under the proposal.

Byrd, who also co-sponsored the previous two House versions of the bill, said immigration is a priority for Governor Ron DeSantis.

“The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government sole authority and power over the issue of immigration, and it’s an important issue that we’re discussing as a country and as a state,” Byrd said. “I think it’s important that all elected officials follow the law, and that’s why I filed it.”

“How many sanctuary jurisdictions are there in Florida?” Rep. Anika Tene Omphroy D-Lauderdale Lakes, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked Byrd during Wednesday’s meeting.

“It’s my understanding that there are approximately 11 that are either sanctuary entities or have some form of sanctuary policy,” he replied.

“Can you tell me the 11 that you’re speaking in reference to?” Omphroy asked.

“I do not have the list with me,” Byrd said.

Later in the meeting, Omphroy asked Byrd where he got the number 11 from. Byrd simply replied, “from news reports.”

Byrd later walked back on that claim, saying he thinks he heard the number during a testimony in the Senate and picked up on it there.

“Then some people kind of seized on that number, so I went back and looked at,” he told WJCT. “It kind of hinges on your definition of sanctuary policy. They’re trying to pin that down as some kind of formal policy that’s passed the county or city commission and I think that’s interpreting it too narrowly.”

He said it’s very difficult to pin down the number of Florida communities that have sanctuary policies.

“You don’t have to have a formal statement or policy, it can be an informal policy,” he said. “And we know that there are certain law enforcement agencies around the state that are refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.”

Kennedy, who was at Wednesday’s committee meeting, agrees there’s no real definition of what a sanctuary jurisdiction is, but he said whatever definition you go by, there are none in Florida.

“There are certain guidelines that outline data sharing agreements between the federal government and local jurisdictions,” he said. “Every jurisdiction in Florida is under compliance with those guidelines.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not keep a running list of sanctuary cities, but between Jan. 28 and Feb. 17, 2017, the department did publish weekly declined detainer outcome reports on its website.

The publication of those reports has been temporarily suspended, but the three that were published did include examples of declined detainers in several Florida jurisdictions.

Byrd told WJCT he’s trying to put together an updated list of Florida communities that have sanctuary policies.

“There were some news reports in the past that have identified either counties or local governments that are refusing to cooperate,” he said. “But I don’t want to mention any by name until I confirm whether or not they’re still refusing to cooperate.”

One question posed during Wednesday’s committee meeting involved whether the state would face lawsuits as a result of forcing local governments to rely on federal immigration authorities, who can make mistakes.

Byrd said there should be no reason for local governments to be sued if they follow the structure of his bill.

“I fully expect they will enforce it correctly,” he added. “If they do not, that’s why we have a court system.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his county has allowed holding undocumented immigrants in jail for federal immigration authorities even after the immigrants’ charges have been resolved. He added that no one has sued the county over that practice because it is being done “lawfully.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Special Projects Producer Brendan Rivers joined WJCT News in August of 2018 after several years as a reporter and then News Director at Southern Stone Communications, which owns and operates several radio stations in the Daytona Beach area.