A Republican measure to penalize so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to arrest undocumented immigrants solely because of their immigration status passed the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, clearing it for a floor vote when the 2018 legislative session begins in January.

  • HB 9 cracks down on sanctuary cities in Florida
  • Bill passed Florida House Judiciary Committee Tuesday
  • Immigrants vowing to fight bill

While most legislation must be vetted by multiple committees before reaching the floor, the proposed crackdown (HB 9) was referred only to the Judiciary Committee. Critics contend the sole assignment was intentional, allowing the House's Republican leaders to fast-track the bill while at the same time limiting public debate on a politically combustible topic.

The lower chamber is home to some of the legislature's most conservative voices, which for years have been calling for a more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement in Florida. 

The popularity of President Trump's criticisms of sanctuary cities during his 2016 campaign inspired House leaders to draft a crackdown during the 2017 legislative session. That measure failed to gain traction in the more moderate Senate, but supporters are hopeful the 2018 session will be different.

Aware of the stakes -- and the limited opportunity for public input -- busloads of undocumented immigrants traveled to Tallahassee from Miami, Orlando and Tampa for Tuesday's hearing.

"It criminalizes our families, our friends, our communities, and also, a lot of us are 'dreamers' or are supporting the Dream Act, and it criminalizes them also," said Brenda Vargas Pioquinto, who was born in Mexico but has spent most of her life in Tampa Bay.

The legislation would fine local governments up to $5,000 per day for maintaining a policy that "impedes a law enforcement agency from communicating or cooperating with a federal immigration agency on immigration enforcement." Non-compliance could also result in local elected officials being removed from office.

A similar crackdown passed by Texas lawmakers is being challenged in court, with a federal judge invalidating much of the law in August. An appellate court has temporarily reinstated some of the law's provisions, but the legal fight has led critics of HB 9 to warn of a long and expensive court battle in Florida, as well.

At Tuesday's hearing, the bill's champions echoed the president in demanding more "law and order" in an immigration system they say has allowed undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation, only to then commit heinous crimes.

In a particularly tense exchange with the immigrants assembled in the hearing room, Rep. Cord Byrd (R-Jacksonville Beach) accused them of a flagrant disregard for the law.

"Your lack of documents is not the issue. It is the fact that your first act upon entering our country was to break our laws," he said. "I do not get to pick and choose which laws I get to obey."

Most of the immigrants, however, were brought to the United States as children, with their parents making that consequential decision for them. Now on the front lines of the immigration debate, they're pledging to oppose HB 9 and its companion legislation, SB 308, at every turn. 

"It's mind-blowing, because I can't believe I wasn't aware about this before, and it really hit home and it just showed me the importance of what it is to be involved in your community, become active," Vargas Pioquinto said.