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How California could learn a thing or two about immigration reform from Florida

by Christopher A. Guzman, published

Michael Bennett, Florida Senate President Pro Tempore, expressed no confidence in the federal government's current ability to fix a broken immigration system, according to a recent News-Press of Fort Myers editorial. Fixing America's impaired immigration system is not a simple matter, he said, instead offering that it's possible to equip states like his own with the means to enforce immigration laws while not interfering with federal law.

"The U.S. immigration system is broken and we cannot look to the federal government for solutions," he said.

Along with his fellow legislators, they came to the aforementioned conclusion after considering the issue in a series of meetings, calling the realization one important truth that emerged from those discussions. Understanding the impact on the state of Florida was crucial before implementing any sort of immigration policy at the state level, he said.

Regarding the deep complexity of tackling immigration at the state level, he indicated that a balance is needed for states enforcing the law. On the one hand, it wouldn't be helpful if all 50 states had their own separate immigration policy. On the other hand, he also said that there shouldn't be a "cut and paste" policy solution applying to all the other states either.

Location, key industries, and state policy all factor into what immigration legislation states should consider. Despite his emphasis on the difficulty of striking a balance on immigration policy, Bennett offered up certain principles that should come into play.

Unlike many of his Republican and a minority of Democratic colleagues in Washington who shot down the Dream Act, the senator didn't condemn the legislation at the national level. As for the children in Florida, he said that they came through no effort of their own, not willfully breaking the law of their own volition.  

     "Efforts like the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) are a start in order to provide conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants who serve our country or complete their college education," he said of the currently 80,000 children of illegal immigrants, the number he cited as living in Florida.

In Florida, there is also a category of immigration status known as Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which applies to those displaced by "ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or other temporary conditions." As an example, Bennett cited Haitians who were displaced by the earthquake of 2010 and who are granted drivers licenses during their time. With this too, the senator did not have a problem, seeing that the driver's licenses aren't granted tomost illegal aliens; rather, they were given in the most dire of circumstances.

With echoes of Arizona, Bennett has authored a bill for the Florida legislature to consider that would empower local law enforcement to check the immigration status of individuals with probable cause. With the bill, SB 136, individuals would need to have one of four pieces of identification under law. It also seeks to cooperate with federal authorities, protects the civil rights of all, and empowers citizens with legal recourse if they have been unfairly targeted by the law. 

While not the only bill granting immigration enforcement powers to local authorities in the nation at the moment, senator Bennett lays out a pretty good case for his bill and for other states to consider similar measures.  It rewards legal immigration, seeks to weed out those that are here without permission according to existing federal law, and doesn't trouble those displaced by disaster.

Whatever side of the immigration debate that a majority of the California state legislature sides with, they should take a page from Florida's deliberation process and address the following questions: What tangible impact does having the highest illegal immigrant population in the country have upon this state? If the state as a whole were to hypothetically take up immigration enforcement legislation, which is unlikely to happen under Gov. Jerry Brown, how much would it curtail illegal immigration in the state? Is it possible that implementing a California Dream Act would have some benefit down the line?

Here in California, voters and politicians on both sides of aisle need to put aside their partisan attacks and derogatory name-calling. Not only are such comments out of line, they detract from the meat of the discussion. Like legislators in Florida, we need to have a constructive and realistic discussion about the facts. Questions asked with the future of California in mind will make this state a more welcoming one in years to come.

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