Immigrant Group Slams Florida Democrats for Backing Undocumented Crackdown Bill

These days, #Resisting Trump apparently encompasses a really broad spectrum of activities. On one hand, you've got your labor activists fighting for living wages, housing advocates battling for affordable homes, and a growing base of voters in both parties calling their representatives and asking them to institute single-payer healthcare.

On the other hand, you've got two-faced politicians like Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy, Val Demings, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who have publicly aligned themselves against Trump, but voted yesterday in favor of a draconian, racist crackdown on undocumented immigrants that Trump has personally pushed.

The rule, called "Kate's Law," passed 257-to-167 in the House of Representatives and subjects immigrants caught reentering the U.S. to harsher prison time if they have a prior aggravated felony conviction, multile misdemeanors, or or have been removed from the U.S. three times before. Immigrant groups and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose the measure, saying it's based on the offensive idea that immigrants are a large source of crime; they also dispute that nation's immigration issues can be solved through increased incarceration.

In total, just 24 House Democrats voted for the measure. (Every single Florida Republican voted for the bill.)

The bill has been proposed multiple times in the past. In a letter to Senate lawmakers sent in July of last year, the ACLU warned that the bill would cost taxpayers an estimated $3 billion over the next decade, require the construction of at least nine new federal prisons, and mostly target thousands of immigrants who aren't actually dangerous, like petty thieves or people who miss court dates. A previous version of the bill included mandatory-minimum sentences for offenders — this year's version drops the mandatory-minimums but gives prosecutors the option to impose extremely long sentences against immigrants, in some cases 15 or 20 years.

"The five-year minimum prison term would apply to a person with a prior aggravated felony conviction, which includes everything from murder to theft or failing to appear in court," the ACLU wrote last year. "The mandatory minimum term would apply regardless of the nature or circumstances of the prior offense, or the person’s future dangerousness. The five-year mandatory minimum sentence would also apply to people with two prior illegal reentry convictions. These might be people who have no other conviction history, but have repeatedly come here to work in order to provide for a family and contribute to the economy."

Murphy and Demings represent the Orlando area, while Crist, a former Republican and independent, is now in his first term representing the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area in Washington. Demings is a former chief of the Orlando Police Department, who has repeatedly said she stands against Trump's proposed crackdowns on Muslims and immigrants:
All three Democrats deserved to get raked over the coals for this one. While all three have been busy tweeting against Trump's antics or appearing on CNN to demand an investigation into his alleged Russian ties, they each voted in favor of Trump's outright racist agenda.

The votes are likely to piss of their own bases, too. Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump in each of the three lawmakers' congressional districts in 2016.

It's just the latest move that shows how quickly and easily Florida's Democrats are willing to roll over and support Trump's agenda when it suits them. After Trump bombed Syrian airfields in April, Florida Democrats including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bill Nelson announced they supported the bombing campaign.

Today, the Florida Immigrant Coalition's policy director Francesca Menes released a statement slamming all three Florida Democrats, who were ostensibly elected to stop these sorts of bills from becoming law.

"Enforcement-only legislation has time and again proven itself a failure in tackling the complexities of the immigration debate in this country," Menes said. "The Florida Immigrant Coalition is disappointed in the members of the Florida Congressional delegation, including Representatives Charlie Crist, Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings who voted for H.R. 3004. We have entrusted these representatives to stand and protect our communities, yet yesterday, they voted to criminalize immigrants, separate our families and dismantle the public trust with local law enforcement."
A separate bill cracking down on so-called "sanctuary cities" also passed the House yesterday — in that instance, Crist, Demings, Murphy, and even all three of Miami's congressional Republicans (Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) voted against it.

But Congress has been grappling with Kate's Law for years. The bill came about after 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed in San Francisco in July 2015. Steinle's killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, was a previously deported Mexican national with seven prior felony convictions, albeit all for nonviolent offenses.

But people calling for a crackdown on immigrants have ignored that Lopez-Sanchez, a mentally ill man, was only able to shoot Steinle because he'd somehow gotten his hands on a stolen gun from a federal agent by breaking into his car. (It's unclear if he's the one who stole the weapon, but he claimed he'd found it wrapped in a t-shirt underneath a park bench.) In response to the shooting, California passed its own bill attempting to solve the problem — by sensibly forcing law-enforcement agents to take better care of their guns.

Lopez-Sanchez was not some sort of cold-blooded murderer: He was also homeless, deeply mentally ill, and claimed that on the day of the shooting, he'd taken random pills he'd found inside a dumpster. Before shooting Steinle, he did not have a record of violence. From 2011 to 2015, he was serving federal prison time for an immigration violation. The only reason he even ended up in San Francisco was that the city's district attorney demanded Lopez-Sanchez be prosecuted for a 20-year-old case in which Lopez-Sanchez was caught with a tiny amount of pot. But those charges were later dropped, and Lopez-Sanchez was left ill and alone in San Francisco.

Those facts have not stopped Steinle's father, who was standing next to his daughter when she was shot, from demanding that the government crack down on undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. A version of the law was proposed in 2015 but didn't pass. Donald Trump then campaigned on passing Kate's Law, but even Steinle's father found Trump's ideas too terrible to support him: While the Steinle family believes in Kate's Law, it doesn't support Trump's stalled plans to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the incident has also ignited a debate over how often the U.S. ought to be deporting people at all. Justice-reform advocates bring up the fact that when undocumented immigrants commit crimes in the U.S., they are prosecuted and serve the same amount of prison time as regular Americans.

Activists have questioned why immigrants are subject to the added punishment of deportation when they commit the same exact crimes as U.S. citizens. Likewise, prison-reformers have asked why the country should focus on deporting immigrants after they serve prison time, instead of altering the prison system to work on reforming criminals.

The Immigrant Coalition's Menes added that many immigrant voters (the ones who are motivated to vote, at least) choose Democrats because they expect that the party will work to prevent them from being deported or harassed. As such, the actions of Crist, Murphy, and Demings are nothing short of a major disappointment.

"At a time where Congress attempts to legitimize Trump’s hateful rhetoric which seeks to demonize and target immigrant families, we need leaders, who will focus on enacting comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "Mass detention and deportation programs not only undermine our basic human rights but have only exacerbated problems regarding immigration in this country while providing no long-term solutions."

There's at least one silver lining. The bill has yet to pass through the Senate, though there's a great chance it will. It's unlikely that Centrist Florida Sen. Bill Nelson votes for the measure, but given his background, that isn't not a foregone conclusion.

"The Senate now has an opportunity to stop legislation which erodes public safety and undermines our constitution," Menes said. "We call on Senators from both political parties to reject these draconian bills, and we send a notice to all those who voted in favor that we are watching intently and will hold them accountable."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.