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A shameful campaign ad sheds heat where Florida's immigration debate needs light

A Tampa Bay Times editorial

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, Tampa Bay Times

A Tampa Bay Times editorial

Even by the gutter standards of modern times, the television ad that Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran began to air this week is despicable. The ad uses the accidental death of a woman in California to frame a national debate on immigration through the lens of a terrified white woman being gunned down by a bearded man in a hoodie. Race-baiting is not a leadership skill, it's a bad look for anyone who wants to be governor, and it also doesn't serve the interests of America's third-largest state in crafting a smarter immigration policy. That debate needs less heat, more light and a sharper focus on the realities of where reasonable people can agree.

The ad shows a young, red-haired woman walking through a suburban neighborhood, smiling and texting as she passes a hooded man on a sidewalk. As the two pass, he pulls a gun from his pocket and she turns toward him, terrified as the camera pans straight down the barrel. Then a shot rings out. Emily L. Mahoney of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Tuesday that Corcoran's political action committee, Watchdog PAC, had already spent $95,560 to run the 30-second spot more than 700 times on Fox News channels this week in some of Florida's biggest media markets, including the Tampa Bay area, Jacksonville and Orlando.

This cynical barrage all but ends any pretense that Corcoran is waiting until the legislative session ends in March to decide whether to run for governor this year. He has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a focus this session, pushing a bill through the House to prohibit any so-called "sanctuary city" policies that restrict local police from fully cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The Senate postponed a vote on the bill Tuesday.

In the ad, Corcoran evokes the death of Kathryn Steinle, a young white woman shot and killed in San Francisco in 2015. Police charged a Mexican national, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, in her death; he had been deported multiple times and was freed prior to the shooting by local authorities who declined to use a drug charge as the basis to turn Garcia Zarate over to immigration agents. A jury acquitted him of murder and manslaughter charges last year after the defense argued the shot was fired accidentally, with the bullet ricocheting off the ground and striking Steinle in the back. He was, however, convicted on firearms charges.

Republicans seized on the case and have not let up since the verdict, calling it a symbol of liberal policies in urban centers, despite the jury's decision. Corcoran has said that Florida has two "sanctuary cities" -- St. Petersburg and Tallahassee. His TV ad ends with a screen shot: "End sanctuary cities."

There is no legal definition of a "sanctuary city;" it is a loaded term some Republicans use to deride the widely varying policies that many cities have for complying with federal requests to detain suspected illegal immigrants. In virtually all these cases, county sheriffs, who operate the jails, are merely attempting to comply with court rulings governing the flexibility local jurisdictions have to hold immigration suspects for federal authorities. After months of work, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri succeeded recently in crafting an agreement between several sheriffs and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is expected to be a statewide and national model.

It's no wonder that Florida Republicans looking to energize the conservative base would use liberal cities like San Francisco as targets. But it doesn't excuse painting a false picture of what is happening in our state, dividing Florida further along ethnic and racial lines. This is demagoguery masquerading as public policy. And it does nothing to solve the real problem.

America's immigration system needs a thorough overhaul, and law enforcement at every level can be improved to strengthen public safety. But the focus needs to be on getting undocumented immigrants out of the darkness and onto a practical, orderly path to legal residency. Think about this: The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that at least six out of 10 of America's farm workers are undocumented. Florida, with its large population of undocumented workers engaged in agriculture, construction and other core industries, should be leading the way in establishing a viable framework for bringing the millions in this underground economy into the mainstream. But that won't happen if Florida leaders imagine those hands pulling a trigger instead of picking a strawberry -- or turning the page of a textbook in college.

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