Florida has never had a “sanctuary city” nor has any local government ever proposed creating one, but the state now has a new law outlawing them – and that apparently relieved a pressing urgency for the standing-room-only crowd in red “Make America Great Again” hats that crammed the Okaloosa County Commission chambers Friday.
They were in the Panhandle county’s administrative center to witness – and vociferously cheer on – Gov. Ron DeSantis as he signed Florida’s ban on “sanctuary cities” officially into law.
“Sanctuary cities basically create law-free zones where people can come to our state illegally and our country illegally, commit criminal offenses and then just walk right out the door and continue to do it,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, that will not happen.”
The measure – a legislative priority for DeSantis – requires local jails and prisons to hold an undocumented immigrant charged or convicted of a crime for 48 hours past their release dates to give federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement [ICE] agents time to collect and deport them.
Under the new law, the governor also has the authority to initiate “judicial proceedings” against local officials who do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities, endorse “sanctuary city policies” or implement “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
The bill prohibits local governments from enacting “sanctuary” polices that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
The new law was adopted as Senate Bill 168, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida.
“Making sure we protect American citizens from the very bad, criminal illegal aliens that are here committing the worst crimes imaginable,” Gruters said Friday at the bill signing. “This is not about illegal aliens who are here trying to provide for their families.”
SB 168, among several bills banning “sanctuary cities” introduced during the session, was adopted after lengthy, combative committee and floor debates on May 2 – the next to last day of the session – in a partisan 22-18 vote in the Senate and 68-45 passage in the House.
The bill was aggressively protested by immigrants and advocates in Tallahassee during the session, who feared the law would encourage law enforcement profiling, force deportations for minor offenses and discourage victims and witnesses from reporting crime.
Democrats and other critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], say Florida has never had a “sanctuary city” and that ICE, not Florida’s sheriffs, has an extensive history of not responding in a timely manner to local jails’ requests to collect flagged undocumented detainees.
The ACLU is among advocacy groups expected to challenge the law in court, questioning if holding people based on an immigration detainer is unconstitutional as well as the constitutionality of local law enforcement’s increasing role as an executor of federal immigration policy.
Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, on Friday, said the bill-signing – and the reaction of those there – “is about politics in its worst form by scapegoating immigrants.”
“With the stroke of his pen today, Governor Ron DeSantis joined many of his fellow Republicans in officially turning their backs on desperate immigrant men, women and children – most of them Hispanic – who have sought refuge in Florida,” Gibson said in a statement.
She said Florida faces many problems, “including the long-suffering victims of Hurricane Michael still living in tents in the Panhandle, ironically, not far from where this bill signing has taken place. But sanctuary cities is not one of them. There is yet to be a single one established within our borders.”
But none of those concerns were evident Friday in the Okaloosa County Commission chambers, where the crowd cheered DeSantis and Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz’s praise of President Donald Trump, who has made illegal immigration his top priority.
As part of the bill-signing presentation, DeSantis asked Kiyan Michael of Jacksonville to testify how her son Brandon was killed by a driver who had been twice deported yet had no problem returning illegally to the country again.
“We’re blessed to have the best president, we believe, since Ronald Reagan,” she said, sparking a crescendo of cheers. “Our fight is not over. Our immigration laws have to be reformed, they have to be changed, so you all don’t become us.”