Florida candidate's press for law opens immigration debate for Republicans

One Florida gubernatorial candidate’s proposal for an Arizona-style immigration law is opening up an unwelcome debate for other GOP candidates across the state.

Bill McCollum (R), who’s also the state’s attorney general, is championing a proposal that goes even further than Arizona's law by permitting judges to take immigration status into account when setting bond.

ADVERTISEMENT
If McCollum prevails in the Republican gubernatorial primary, his position at the top of the ticket while advocating for a law that might alienate Hispanic voters could complicate matters for some GOP candidates. Florida has the third largest Hispanic population in the nation and those voters make up 14 percent of the state’s electorate.

Case in point: Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio, who is the most prominent Hispanic Republican candidate of the 2010 cycle. Rubio is a favorite of conservative activists and Tea Party groups in the state, but he had treaded lightly on the immigration issue since the enactment of the Arizona law.

In April, Rubio expressed concern over some aspects of the Arizona law and he hasn't weighed in fully on McCollum's proposal.

A campaign spokesman said Rubio believes the best approach is for the federal government to deal with border security and immigration. He also called state efforts such as that of Arizona’s "a wake-up call for Congress to get its act together."

The Rubio campaign noted Thursday's border-security vote in the Senate was "a step in the right direction" and said Rubio would have supported it. That legislation raised fees on corporations that use U.S. visa laws to hire foreign workers and increased the number of border-patrol agents.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who is waging an independent campaign for the Senate, has come out against McCollum’s proposal. In an interview on CNN earlier in the week, Crist said "I don't like the Arizona law" and made it clear he doesn't support a similar one in Florida.

He suggested the law opens the potential for racial profiling, saying that "the notion that you would pull somebody over because of how they looked or how they appeared and based on maybe nothing else but that" worried him.

A Rasmussen poll from July found 62 percent of Florida voters were in favor of an Arizona-style immigration law for the Sunshine state. Just 24 percent were opposed.

One Latino Florida Republican who opposes the idea doesn't have to worry about reelection. A spokesman for retiring Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart told The Hill the congressman is against McCollum's idea.

His brother, fellow Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), also opposes McCollum's proposal. While Diaz-Balart said he supports McCollum's bid for governor, "I disagree with his immigration proposal and do not believe it is the solution to our country's broken immigration system."

Mario Diaz-Balart is vacating his 25th district seat to run in the 21st District instead, which is the seat left open by his brother's retirement.

That leaves an open race in the 25th, which is likely to pit two Hispanic candidates against one another in November's general election. Neither of them likes the idea of an Arizona-style law in Florida, but state Rep. David Rivera, the leading GOP candidate in the race, is mum on the proposal.

Rivera's campaign told The Hill the candidate is in the process of reviewing McCollum's proposal and "isn't ready to comment on it at this time."

A campaign spokesperson did say Rivera thinks the Arizona law has "served as a distraction" from strengthening border security and cracking down on employers who "take advantage of illegal immigrants." Rivera backs a guest worker program, which many on the right deride as amnesty.

The district is closely divided between the two parties — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) bested President Obama there in 2008 by less than 3,000 votes. The district is also 67 percent Hispanic.

Democrat Joe Garcia's campaign sees an opening in Rivera's reluctance to denounce the proposal outright and rips McCollum's idea as "an even more harmful version of Arizona's law."

"Discrimination, racial profiling and making immigrants feel unwelcome in America are not solutions," Garcia said, ripping Rivera for "trying to keep his job as a career politician while refusing to take a stand on a tough issue."

Supporting McCollum's push for a tough immigration law is less of a reach for someone such as GOP candidate Allen West, who is riding a wave of support from Tea Party and conservative activists in his bid to unseat Rep. Ron Klein (D).

"We have a creeping and serious problem with illegal immigration in the state of Florida and it needs to be addressed," West told the Hill. He said the district where he’s running already houses several "sanctuary cities" and said he fully supports a law like the one proposed by McCollum.

If Florida does become the next national immigration battleground, it only helps a candidate such as West, who is raising large amounts of cash from conservative donors nationwide.

Klein's campaign did not return a request to weigh in on the proposal.

Neither did the campaign of Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D), who is expected to face a strong Republican challenger this fall. While the Republican primary in her district is a crowded one, it includes one of the state's leading proponents of an Arizona-type law.

"I have not only said that I'm for this, but I've filed legislation repeatedly for this," said state Rep. Sandy Adams (R), who has been pushing for a law similar to the one McCollum is backing since 2007.