An effort to ensure local governments in Florida fully comply with requests from federal immigration authorities passed a key Senate panel on Tuesday, after lawmakers voted to strip penalties for local officials who favor so-called sanctuary cities.
The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 4-2 vote, along party lines, showing that the proposal has greater momentum this year than in the past when similar proposals stalled in the committee.
Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has made the proposal his top priority going into the annual legislative session, which starts March 5. To help it pass this year, he said he is willing to water it down to make the measure “more palatable” to some lawmakers.
“To make it more palatable before the Judiciary Committee, we will not have language that allows removal from public office,” said Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who had initially recommended that punishment for local officials who want to limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, argued he would like to see more teeth added to the proposal to ensure compliance at the local level with federal immigration laws. But Gruters said he would not pursue that at this time.
“We do not want to be vengeful,” Gruters said.
Instead, the framework Gruters has laid out would largely focus on ensuring local law-enforcement agencies honor administrative detainers issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials when potentially deportable people are identified in Florida jails and prisons.
Under the proposal, local officials would be required to honor requests from federal authorities to hold immigrants in detention for up to 48 hours. The provision drew a backlash from Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who argued detainers violate due-process rights and should require court warrants.
“If we are going to be keeping people in state custody, there should be due process,” Rodriguez said.
Gruters argued his proposals would make communities safer and would honor requests by ICE to hold undocumented immigrants who have been charged or convicted of crimes. The detainers would keep immigrants for 48 hours past their release dates to give immigration agents time to pick them up for deportation.
“It would be against this policy and this bill if you are held for more than 48 hours when it comes to honoring this detainer,” Gruters said.
The controversial bill (SB 168) was approved after hour-long testimony from religious and immigrant-rights groups and family members of undocumented immigrants.
The proposal moved forward after unsuccessful attempts by Democrats to add protections for undocumented immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes. Another push by Democrats to carve out education records from being shared with federal immigration authorities also failed.
While the bill passed its first hurdle in the Senate two weeks before the start of the legislative session, it still must clear two committees before it can get a full floor vote in the Senate.
The House has approved similar bills in the past, and Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a co-sponsor of the House version of Gruters’ bill, is confident it will pass again this year.
“I’ll put it this way, I’ve never heard any Republicans in the House speak against it,” Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, told The News Service of Florida.
The House version (HB 527) has not been heard in committees. Sabatini said he thinks state law ought to have criminal sanctions for local officials who vote for so-called sanctuary city policies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis during his inauguration speech vowed to put an end to sanctuary cities. But he has yet to indicate whether he would sign a bill with no sanctions in it.
Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.