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Florida Shift in Immigration Priorities

There has been a shift in immigration priorities in the Florida legislature. Our congressmen have filed bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to access children’s health care and higher education and would allow them to obtain a restricted driver’s license. This immigration agenda is very interesting given that it marks a stark contrast to their aggressive immigration enforcement priorities pursued last year. We’ve gone from 2011, in which we had the very negative Arizona-style law presented by Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, to an agenda that has proposed bills that offer opportunities to the immigrant community. In early January, state Sen. Rene Garcia (R- Hialeah), filed a bill (“Restrictive Driving Privilege Card/Illegal Immigrant Residing in this State”) that would authorize the “Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to issue a restrictive driving privilege card to an illegal immigrant to allow the illegal immigrant to drive a motor vehicle on the highways of this state.” Sen. Garcia also filed a Florida Kidcare Program bill that would do away with a “provision preventing children who do meet the definition of a qualified alien from participating in the program.” Natalia Jaramillo of the Florida Immigrant Coalition attributes part of the motive for this shift in priorities as one closely tied with the presidential race. “We know we’re in an election year, in which the Latino vote is important, and Republicans want to be seen promoting measures that favor Latinos. But we know that at the national level the rhetoric is totally different, and these are small changes in state proposals.” Another bill (“Resident Status for Tuition Purposes”) filed in the House by state Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville), and in the Senate by Garcia, would classify “as residents for tuition purposes a United States citizen who attends a Florida high school for at least 2 consecutive years and submits his or her high school transcript to and enrolls in an institution of higher education within 12 months after graduating from a Florida high school.” Currently under Florida law, a student who wishes to qualify for in-state tuition fees for higher education has to provide proof of residency, and if the student is a dependent must also provide proof of his or her parents’ legal residency-clearly unfairly barring the undocumented from paying for college as the Florida residents that they are. That is why the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the state on behalf of several aspiring college students who are denied in-state college tuition rates in Florida because they cannot prove the lawful immigration status of their parents.” State Rep. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami) filed the “Postsecondary Student Fees” bill that “provides exemption from payment of nonresident tuition” at Florida colleges for students who have attended an in-state high school for three years or more and graduate there. Bullard’s bill extends to students “without lawful immigration status who could file an affidavit with the state university or the Florida College System institution stating that the student has filed an application to legalize his or her immigration status or will file an application as soon as he or she is eligible to do so.” Alongside these bills are two measures filed by Republican legislators that, if approved, would impact the hiring process and limit municipalities’ ability to crack down on wage theft. The Florida Immigration Coalition thinks that many of these bills have a chance because many of them should have never even been questioned and should have already been in effect. Whether or not the motive for bringing these bills into the legislative table right now is solely based on political reasons is hard to say but it is very coincidental that many of those who are proposing them are Republicans and that they are doing so right at a time in which they need to rally support from Latinos and other immigrant groups. Regardless, time will be the true test that will tell the level of commitment to these proposed bills.

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