Florida Must Not Follow Arizona’s Lead

This article has been written by guest author Maritza Reyes, Assistant Professor of Law, Florida A&M University College of Law.

Most Americans agree that we need comprehensive immigration reform. The failure of the President and Congress to act in this regard has been cited as a reason for the passage of S.B. 1070 in Arizona. The arguments that S.B. 1070 is unconstitutional will be addressed in the federal courts. But, some states are not waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling; instead, states like Florida are following Arizona’s lead and proposing similar or harsher immigration enforcement legislation. However, Florida should claim its own leadership position and make a decision based on the best interests of its state’s diverse population and its economy.

Let’s begin by pointing out two crucial facts: Florida has a large Latino population and tourism is the major industry in the state. Frankly speaking, the pejorative label “illegal alien” is really code speech in the mind of some Americans for stereotypical-looking and speaking Latinos/Hispanics. For example, an early state immigration proposal, the Florida Immigration Enforcement Act, included a provision granting a presumption of lawful presence to Canadians and many Europeans. Regretfully, Florida has a history of making legislative mistakes, i.e. its segregation laws, which have contributed to a tradition of racism that the state is still trying to overcome. The proposed immigration laws will foster conflict among the state’s diverse communities. As if the current economic crisis was not enough, the enactment of state immigration laws will also turn Florida into a police state, which will have a chilling effect on its tourism industry. Tourists do not want to come on vacation to a place where they must walk around in fear of (1) losing their travel documents, which they will have to carry with them at all times, (2) being questioned and detained during their travels, or (3) having U.S. citizens viewing them as potential immigration violators because they look or speak like “illegal aliens.” Some tourists love vacationing in the United States because of the freedom to travel without being checked or watched at all times.

The Arizona law has already proved oppressive and damaging to a Latino population that is maligned with the “illegal alien” tag, disenfranchised due to the legacy of racism, and burdened with the task of continually fighting to be accepted as full members of the American polity. Florida’s Latino population is atypical of most other states in that the majority of its Hispanic population is Puerto Rican and Cuban. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth, and Cubans generally have a right to legal residence through laws specifically legislated for Cuban immigrants. Therefore, the make-up of the Latino population of Florida increases the possibilities that many Latino U.S. citizens or legal residents would be racially profiled, and it opens the state to potential civil rights violations and lawsuits — human and financial costs that Floridians must consider.

Moreover, the state should not give a “legal” tool to the racist remnants that would like to continue to divide the nation. Undoubtedly, there would be well-meaning police officers who may find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to enforce an ill-conceived law. But, the scariest prospect is the power that will be granted to law enforcement officers and a segment of the population that hold racist animus (consciously and unconsciously). Neighbors will be encouraged to play the role of enforcers by spying on their neighbors and reporting them, even anonymously, as proposed in Florida Senate Bill 1896. A caste system will be created under the guise of immigration status. Children of racist parents will now learn that other children that may be of recent foreign origin (many of them Latinos), whether by birth or by ancestry, need to be questioned about their status. This is not far-fetched; President Barack Obama is still being challenged to produce proof of his U.S. birth.

Florida’s livelihood depends, in large part, on visitors from South America. Walt Disney World recently announced that, despite the worldwide economic problems, South American tourists have been coming to the park in record numbers. These tourists have fueled Florida’s economic growth for decades. Latin American tourists may now be targeted, by appearance or language, when law enforcement officers are trying to identify so-called “illegal aliens.” After the enactment of S.B. 1070, Mexican tourists have already been harassed by local law enforcement in Arizona. Latin American countries are warning their citizens to beware of visiting Arizona. Floridians must not risk alienating visitors that come to the state and pump money into its economy.

The legacy of Jim Crow segregation laws should serve as a stark reminder of political positions stimulated by racist animus. Floridians must be careful not to succumb to political agendas, which are, for the most part, advanced by individuals who want to remain in public office at any cost, or, worse yet, by racists who are hiding under the pretext of immigration control. Citizens cannot throw away common sense and good judgment; they must demand that self-serving politicians and ill-intended citizens stop the rhetoric about bringing an Arizona-type law to Florida. The price to be paid if such laws are enacted will haunt the state for decades, or even, as in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Cases, for centuries to come.