Protesters lined the sidewalk on SW 104th Street bordering Miami Dade College.EXPAND
Protesters lined the sidewalk on SW 104th Street bordering Miami Dade College.
Photo by Jess Swanson

State Senator Wants Harsher Punishment for Undocumented Immigrants Who Commit Crimes

Florida state Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican representing St. Johns, Flagler, and parts of Volusia Counties, wants to set up two entirely different punishments for people accused of identical crimes. The difference? Whether you're a U.S. citizen or not when you are arrested.

Under Huston's proposal, anyone committing simple battery or assault in Florida as a U.S. citizen would be charged with a misdemeanor. Commit that identical crime as an undocumented immigrant, and Hutson's bill would make that crime a felony.

Hutson's bill, which if passed would surely be constitutionally challenged, would up the penalties for assault, aggravated assault, battery, and aggravated battery in Florida based on immigration status. Second-degree misdemeanors would be upped to first-degree crimes if committed by undocumented people — first-degree misdemeanors would then become felonies, and every felony from the fourth degree up would be upped by one.

Undocumented immigrants who committed first-degree felonies would then be subject to life sentences.

This is Hutson's second time pitching the bill — he first tried in 2015, drawing sharp rebukes from both immigration activists and civil rights and constitutional lawyers, who warned that passing state-level immigration laws likely conflicts with the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause. (Arizona's infamous racial-profiling bill was struck down in 2012 for that reason.)

Last year, multiple legal scholars told the Naples Daily News that Hutson's state-level immigration bill would clearly violate the Supremacy Clause because the federal government is the body legally responsible for policing immigration. Most legal experts say a series of immigration laws varying by state would create chaos across the nation.

There's already one difference from last year's failed effort: A companion bill has already been introduced in the Florida House. Last year, Hutson couldn't find anyone to file a House bill, but it seems the political climate has changed for some strange, orange reason.

The possibility that his idea isn't constitutional hasn't stopped Hutson. Last year, Miami immigrant rights activist Francesa Menes told New Times that 2015 was the worst climate she'd seen in the seven years she'd been working as an activist.

“Normally in an election cycle, everyone wants to cater to the immigrant vote because they know how important it is,” Menes told New Times in 2015. “But this time around, they’re not worried about our vote, and they’re saying the craziest things I’ve ever heard in my life.”

That was two Novembers ago. Now, with Donald Trump set to take office, immigration activists say they're worried fellow Republicans will be emboldened to crack down harder on undocumented immigrant families.

Hutson has said in news releases that he's simply trying to weed out "violent" immigrants from the rest of society, but it's unclear why a person's immigration status makes two people charged with simple assault or battery different from each other. Hutson has said in releases that he's trying to cut down on violence statewide, but his bill would let some people off the hook for committing the same crimes as immigrants. (Multiple studies also show that undocumented immigrants commit fewer acts of violent crime than most Americans anyway.)

The 2017 state legislative season is just getting underway, and lawmakers spend every December chucking random ideas at the wall to see what sticks. If the bill progresses, expect protests in Tallahassee.

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