Brevard County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution its supporters say is designed to guard against the county becoming a “sanctuary” for illegal immigration.
The resolution, introduced by Commissioner John Tobia, aims to support local cooperation with federal immigration officials.
The vote on Tuesday night came after 26 members of the public urged commissioners to reject the resolution. They contended that Tobia’s resolution to prohibit “sanctuary policies” was targeting ethnic minorities — particularly Puerto Ricans, people from Latin American countries and people of Middle Eastern descent — because of their skin color or accent. They said the measure promotes racism and is out of the County Commission’s purview.
Tobia disputed the arguments of the speakers, saying: “I think following the law is not racist. I think it’s a fundamental part of our society. I strongly, strongly believe in legal immigration. I just have an issue with illegal immigration.”
He sees the resolution as an effort “to reject the liberal movement to protect illegal immigrants at the expense of our community’s safety.”
Brevard County Democratic Chair Stacey Patel of Satellite Beach said after the vote that she felt commissioners did not listen to their constituents.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was appalled” by the County Commission’s unanimous vote, Patel said.
Tobia’s resolution specifically calls on the County Commission to direct the county manager to ensure that neither he nor his staff “develop, endorse or enforce policies which knowingly prohibit or impede communication or cooperation with a federal immigration agency with respect to federal immigration enforcement.”
That would include “limiting or preventing a state entity, local governmental entity or law enforcement agency from lawfully complying with an immigration detainer; initiating an immigration status investigation; or assisting or cooperating with a federal immigration officer as reasonable or necessary.”
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said he supports the measure proposed by Tobia, adding that it coincides with sheriff’s office procedures in working with federal officials to enforce immigration laws.
At Tobia’s request, Ivey detailed for county commissioners the steps the BCSO takes to cooperate with federal officials, including holding suspected illegal immigrants who already are in jail for up to an additional 48 hours after they post bond while their immigration status is investigated. He said 31 inmates in Brevard have been subject to these rules since the BCSO’s agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was signed in March.
Ivey said the “basic ordering agreement” also allows immigration officials the opportunity to interview people in the jail to determine their immigration status.
Brevard is one of more than 40 counties in Florida with such agreements.
Ivey said, as long as he is sheriff, “we will continue to partner with our federal partners to make sure that we are keeping Florida safe, and, certainly, to make sure we’re keeping Brevard County safe.”
Tobia said his resolution is designed to assure that future county politicians and future sheriffs do not deviate from Ivey’s “shining example,” and instead interfere with or fail to cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement. Tobia said it will not have any impact on current policies because Ivey already is doing what the resolution pushes.
“You will not find in this resolution any mention of race, ethnicity or any other protected class of people,” Tobia said. “In other words, this resolution does not encourage or sanction racism or racial profiling.”
When it became apparent that the majority of the County Commission would vote for Tobia’s resolution, some opponents of the measure began to shout “shame” from the audience, leading County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett to call a five-minute recess to calm things down. The recess extended to 10 minutes, as some members of the audience approached Pritchett during the break to express their concerns.
Just after the vote was taken, and Pritchett announced that the measure was approved, 5-0, members of the audience walked out of the County Commission chamber while chanting: “No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here.” That led Pritchett to call another brief recess.
Sam Lopez of Melbourne, president of the civil rights, educational and cultural organization United Third Bridge and chairman of the board of the Florida Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said it was apparent that commissioners did not care about the more than 50 people in the audience in opposition to Tobia’s proposal.
“I was disappointed, but what else can I say?” Lopez said after the vote. “The only thing they’ll understand is a lawsuit.”
During his comments to the County Commission, Lopez said, of Tobia, “We’re dealing with an individual who is a racist.”
Among the speakers who addressed commissioners were two Democratic political candidates — Sanjay Patel of Satellite Beach, who is running for Congress in District 8, and Seeta Begui of Melbourne, who is running for Florida House in District 52. Both are immigrants who, during their remarks, detailed the stories of their families coming to the United States.
Patel said that, instead of Tobia’s effort to “blow his dog whistle in an attempt to villainize and dehumanize the immigrant population in this country and in this county,” Tobia should be focusing on the county’s real issues, such as improving the condition of the Indian River Lagoon and the county’s infrastructure, as well as helping people with low-wage jobs who are struggling to survive financially.
Begui urged commissioners to “stop spreading hate and dividing this nation” by targeting immigrants, “because it does nobody good.”
Space Coast Progressive Alliance President Phil Stasik, a north Merritt Island resident, called Tobia’s resolution “a thinly veiled political maneuver that is wrapped in an anti-immigrant message.” He said the proposal was “ill-conceived,” and its provisions “threaten immigrants of all types.”
Other speakers said their concern was that, as a result of the resolution, people from other countries who live in Brevard will fear interacting with law enforcement officers to report crimes. They also raised the possibility that it will hurt tourism to the Space Coast and enrollment of international students at local colleges.
National organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center had representatives at the meeting.
The only member of the public who spoke in favor of Tobia’s resolution was Suntree resident George Rosenfield, a World War II and Korean War veteran, who said, “Illegal immigrants are just that. They should not have sanctuary cities to continue breaking the law. They came here illegally and unvetted. Sanctuary cities are not the answer.”
County Commission members didn’t feel the resolution negatively targeted anyone.
“I don’t have a prejudiced molecule in my body, but we have to follow the law,” County Commissioner Curt Smith said. “It’s not about hating anybody or disrespecting anybody. We’re Americans, and we have to work together, and we have laws to help us do that.”
“We are a country of immigrants, but we need to follow the law. I don’t know how anybody could be opposed to that,” County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi said. “This isn’t an anti-immigrant resolution, and that’s not a fair assessment of the resolution. To be pro-legal immigration is not racist.”
She said members of the audience should direct their anger at both the Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have been unable to craft federal legislation to reform immigration policy.
“We have a duty to abide by the law,” Pritchett said. “We have a duty to protect the whole community. As far as this resolution, it’s not making a law. It’s telling the county manager to obey the law.”
During their remarks, both Isnardi and Pritchett made it a point to note their ancestry. Isnardi said her father is German and her mother is Canadian. Pritchett said her mother came here from another country and her father is an Algonquin Indian, and she has grandchildren who are Puerto Rican and Asian.
“I’ve never seen a lot of racial problems in our community, in Brevard County,” Pritchett said.
“I haven’t. I haven’t,” Pritchett added, when some members of the audience expressed disagreement with her remark. “It might go on, but I haven’t seen a lot of it.”