When it comes to illegal immigration, Florida is no Arizona

But that hasn't stopped Florida GOP candidates like Rick Scott from jumping on the immigrant-bashing bandwagon.

Last month, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed an incendiary new law that essentially allowed police to check the papers of anyone whose immigration status they had doubts about — even if the person had done nothing wrong.

The law was later amended to require scrutiny only of people who have been stopped, detained or arrested. But the controversy thrust the issue of illegal immigration back onto cable news and talk radio, and has proven to be a handy talking point for Republican politicians seeking conservative votes.

According to FBI statistics, violent crime in Arizona dropped by nearly 1,500 reported incidents between 2005 and 2008, and there is dispute about how many of the violent acts that did occur involved human and drug smuggling. But that didn't impede strong public support for the law in Arizona, which along with Texas and California accounts for nearly half of the known cases of undocumented people inside the US.

Florida has nowhere near the same level of illegal immigration. Nevertheless, both local and statewide candidates are calling for Florida to get Arizona-tough on the issue.

Last month, Republican House District 57 candidate Todd Marks issued a press release hailing the measure. He said the state legislature should "not sit idly by and continue to allow illegal residents to wreak fiscal havoc on our school budgets, our hospitals, our prisons, and our unemployment rate," adding that the state's failure to act has contributed to Florida's economic woes.

That sentiment was echoed with emphasis by one of Marks' GOP challengers, Dana Young. At a debate held earlier this month, Young cited statistics from the Federation for American Immigration Reform that said the state's illegal immigrant population costs taxpayers more than $3.8 billion per year. She said she wasn't sure if the Arizona law was exactly right for Florida, "but it's a solution, and we need a solution here in Florida."

However, one could argue: A solution to what? According to the Department of Homeland Security, Florida was the only state in the country to see a net loss in undocumented immigrants over the past decade. In statistics released in February, DHS reported that the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. jumped to 10.75 million from 2000-2009, but in Florida it dropped by 80,000 (DHS says the current number is 720,000).

But who needs statistics when you can spend a fortune on scare tactics? Enter Rick. Scott. For Governor. The former health care executive has spent millions of dollars in a month's time, and is now competitive with the year-long front-running candidates Bill McCollum and Alex Sink, aided by a series of ads on television including two that express strong support for the Arizona immigration law.

One ad begins with Barack Obama making a joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner: "And we all know what happens in Arizona if you don't have I.D. — adios, amigos!" to much laughter. Then comes the stern bald-headed visage of Scott, who stares at the camera and says, "Illegal immigration is no laughing matter."

Not every Republican in Florida is down with the resurgent anti-immigrant sentiments.

Angelette Aviles is a GOP political consultant of Puerto Rican descent. She understands why candidates might want to capitalize on the Arizona law, but "in the end I believe it is more damaging to the Republican party as a whole because it may be used against any Republican in the general election."

Aviles says there are more important topics for Florida Republicans to focus on, and seemingly the heavily GOP-flavored legislature agreed, ending the past session with little discussion on the issue.

But at another debate, this one featuring five Republican House candidates (and one Democrat) vying for State House District 47, all of the Republicans supported the Arizona law, though only one, Tom Aderhold, thought it would be a good thing for Florida to replicate.

Most Democrats in Florida feel differently. House District 58 Representative Janet Cruz from Tampa said she might have a different opinion if she lived in Arizona, but from her perspective over a thousand miles away she doesn't like the law and didn't think it was necessary in Florida.

"I think we have to be cautious and that we don't turn police officers into racial profilers."

Observing the growing Latin population, many political analysts have said that taking advantage of anti-illegal immigration fervor is good politics for the GOP — in the short term.

Republican Aviles frets that her party may be losing a chance to attract the growing Latino demographic. "In the past several years the perception of the GOP is that the party is anti-immigrant or anti-Hispanic, and when some Republicans continue to make immigration a focal point it only strengthens that perception."

But if so, that problem may be one for 2012 and beyond. Right now, Rick Scott would say it's working for him very nicely.

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