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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Martin now ground zero in debate over immigration?


The immigration system is broken.

The speakers at the podium and the politicians at the dais could agree on that much.

How to fix it was another story.

Friday’s meeting of Martin County’s legislative delegation — the annual get-together between state lawmakers and the residents they represent — revealed that this small community is quickly becoming ground zero for the larger debate about immigration reform in Florida.


Immigrant advocates filled the Martin County Commission chambers to voice their concerns about an Arizona-style law that has been proposed by state Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart.

Meanwhile, newly elected state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, revealed that she intends to file an immigration reform bill of her own.

Harrell’s bill would require businesses to check employees’ immigration status through the E-Verify program that some other states already use. If businesses didn’t comply, they could lose their license.

“I think it ’s a very logical way of handling things,” said Harrell, who intends to file draft legislation in the coming week.

Some immigrant advocates support the idea of such a system — but they warn that using it in a vacuum could do more harm than good to Florida’s tourism and agriculture industries. “E-Verify alone will destroy the economy of Florida,” said immigration attorney Aileen Josephs of West Palm Beach, who attended Friday’s delegation meeting.

The solution, Josephs said, is not at the state level. It lies in comprehensive federal reform that would secure the borders, prevent future undocumented immigration, create fair temporary worker programs, require employer verification and provide a path to legalization for some of the 11 million undocumented workers in the country.

"They will have to get behind the line, learn English and go through criminal background checks," Josephs said.

But Snyder and Harrell are not willing to wait for the federal government to act.

Snyder is drafting his bill, which would give law enforcement officers broader powers to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants during a lawful stop, similar to the disputed Arizona SB 1070.

Stuart resident Louise Cunha said she thought such a law would lead to racial profiling, no matter what the intent.

"Rep.Snyder,please withdraw your support," she said. To his credit, Snyder has taken extra time to get feedback from the community. That has meant state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, beat him to the punch by filing a similar bill (SB 136) of his own this month.

"I think we all have a lot more in common than we might suspect," Snyder told his critics on Friday.

He encouraged several of them to arrange meetings with his office.

"We'll take all the time in the world to get this debated and draft good policy,"Snyder said.

The third member of the four-member Martin delegation, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart,has not filed immigration legislation - but he made it clear Friday where he stands.

When Pastor Monica Delgado said she worried that state-level immigration reform would force the children of illegal immigrants into foster care in Florida, Negron could not help but respond.

"Any parent that violates the law is, regrettably, putting themselves and their families at risk," Negron said.

The state House and Senate are more conservative this year than they have been for decades, and that means immigration reform has a better chance of gaining traction.

But the economic consequences of state-level action should not be minimized.

Earlier this month, the Georgia Farm Bureau warned that immigration reform measures being proposed in that state could put farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

If farmers (or hoteliers, or restaurant owners) in Florida are forced to comply with rules that are not enforced in other states, all Floridians will suffer.

The playing field must be level. That requires federal reform.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. For more on Martin County topics, follow her blog at TCPalm.com/samples.

Contact her at (772) 221-4217 or eve.samples@scripps.com.

Copyright © 2010 Scripps Media Inc. 12/19/2010

Treasure Coast Newspapers

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