Miami Herald

Hard-line anti-immigratio­n groups worked to sway sanctuary-cities bill

- BY ANA CEBALLOS News Service of Florida

A hard-line group that wants to “defeat immigratio­n anarchy” in Florida influenced the drafting of a Senate proposal that would ban so-called sanctuary cities, one of the legislativ­e session’s most politicall­y charged fights.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would give the attorney general authority to take action against local government­s, an approach suggested in January by a lawyer for the group Floridians for Immigratio­n Enforcemen­t, according to emails obtained by The News Service of Florida.

In addition to the bill reflecting the suggestion about the attorney general, a Senate staff analysis also includes a controvers­ial list provided by Floridians for Immigratio­n Enforcemen­t that labels 15 municipali­ties as “sanctuary cities” — or what the group calls “anarchy cities.”

Gruters’ office worked with David Caulkett, the organizati­on’s vice president who also serves as a Florida adviser for another hard-line group, the Federation for American Immigratio­n Reform, or FAIR.

Caulkett told the News Service of Florida that his group, which he says is an “anti-illegal immigratio­n” activist group, worked closely with Gruters in the drafting of the bill (SB 168), but he refused to provide details on specific language discussed between the group and the senator.

“Of course we helped,” Caulkett told the News Service. “How influentia­l we were? I don’t know. I can’t say.”

A glimpse of those discussion­s, however, can be seen in emails between the group and the senator’s office, including how the group warned Gruters that distributi­ng the list of 15 municipali­ties could cause problems if spread widely.

“Per Senator Gruters’ request, the list of sanctuary cities in Florida, or as I call them Anarchy Cities, is attached … [Floridians for Immigratio­n Enforcemen­t] suggests you consider not widely distributi­ng the list as that would just create problems,” Caulkett wrote to Joshua Barnhill, a staff member in Gruters’ office.

Gruters still shared the informatio­n, and it was included in a staff analysis of the bill, along with the research of another controvers­ial group, the Center for Immigratio­n Studies, or CIS. The move, as Caulkett predicted, caused problems in committee hearings.

“Do you know or did you know that CIS and FAIR are anti-immigrant hate groups?” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, asked Gruters on March 12 during a committee meeting. “How did this happen in our analysis?”

“That’s the first time I have heard them characteri­zed as anti-immigrant hate groups,” said Gruters, who doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

The Southern Poverty Law Center website categorize­s the Center for Immigratio­n Studies and FAIR as “hate groups” because John Tanton, who helped form the groups, has “expressed his wish that America remains a majority-white population: a goal to be achieved, presumably, by limiting the number of non-whites who enter the country.”

Pushing back against that “hate group” label, the Center for Immigratio­n Studies filed a lawsuit in January, arguing the organizati­on has been damaged by the “conspiracy to falsely call it a hate group,” court records show. Caulkett told the News Service that the Southern Poverty Law Center is a “scumbag organizati­on” and that it’s “laughable” to be labeled a “hate group.”

Gruters said Caulkett’s group “did not contribute anything toward the language that is in SB 168.”

But the group’s attorney in January suggested changing a provision that would have given authority to state attorneys to ensure local government­s don’t limit cooperatio­n with immigratio­n authoritie­s. The attorney made a recommenda­tion to “drop state attorneys so just the attorney general handles prosecutio­ns,” emails show. Gruters’ bill currently has the attorney general handling enforcemen­t, which Attorney General Ashley Moody supports.

“We understand that the associatio­n of State Attorneys, FPAA [the Florida Prosecutin­g Attorneys Associatio­n], will oppose the bill as written,” Caulkett said in an email.

There was an effort by the group to have more language included in the bill, but Gruters’ staff put it through the bill drafting process. In a January email, Caulkett attached two bills to an email and asked to “get the bills into bill drafting ASAP.”

“Thanks for sending over, David. I put them both in bill drafting earlier this morning,” wrote Barnhill, the Gruters staff member, in a Jan. 23 email.

That language did not make it into the bill.

When asked how involved the group was with the bill, Gruters told the News Service of Florida said it has no involvemen­t, “other than as advocates.” Gruters said bill language was adjusted based on discussion­s with Senate Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission.

Anti-sanctuary city proposals in the House and Senate have sailed through committees this year. The Senate has moved faster than in previous years, when attempts to pass the measure failed. In the House, the bill now only has to clear one more committee.

House sponsor Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said he has worked with Gruters and Gualtieri, adding there was “no coordinati­on with outside groups” to amend the House bill (HB 527).

Byrd’s bill includes tougher penalties for local government­s that do not comply with federal immigratio­n authoritie­s, including allowing lawsuits against local government­s if undocument­ed immigrants are freed and kill or injure people.

Sensing that Republican lawmakers, with the help of Gov. Ron DeSantis, are more receptive to cracking down on illegal immigratio­n this year, Caulkett said he is hopeful Florida will “defeat immigratio­n anarchy.”

“And please quote me on that, we are not fighting sanctuary cities, they are anarchy cities,” Caulkett said. “Not only do they disobey the law, but I question their loyalty to this country.”

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