Among the early bills already being filed for Florida’s 2017 legislative session is a measure from Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, that would increase penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes. Supporters say the measure sends a message to federal immigration authorities and would increase public safety. Opponents question its constitutionality.
HB 83 would give prosecutors the ability to increase penalties for violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants by reclassifying the crimes. For example, an undocumented immigrant charged with a second degree felony could wind up facing first degree felony charges. Eagle said he aims to increase public safety and help the federal government deport undocumented violent offenders.
“Let’s say it’s a pretty heinous crime. Well, this individual will more likely be held behind bars longer rather than put back out on the streets,” said Rep. Eagle. “And maybe when our federal government decides to act, rather than having to go find this person out in the streets, they’ll be able to find them securely in our incarceration system.”
Citing an increase in reported hate crimes across the country following Donald Trump’s election, the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Francesca Menes, said she worries proposals like this could increase anti-immigrant sentiment. She says it may also project the idea that immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than citizens.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 71.5 percent of non-citizen inmates in Florida’s prisons counted in June 2016 were convicted of violent offenses. That’s compared with 54.5 percent of the overall inmate population. The Department’s data on what it calls “alien inmates” does not differentiate between documented and undocumented people.
Meanwhile a report released last year by the American Immigration Council contends that immigrants are actually less likely to commit serious crimes than U.S. citizens. That report notes that while the country’s undocumented immigrant population tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million people between 1990 and 2013, FBI data shows the overall violent crime rate declined 48 percent over that same time period.
Francesca Menes said the Florida Immigrant Coalition is exploring possible legal challenges to the bill. “It’s the simple fact that if you are undocumented and you commit a violent offense, that alone gives a reason for your penalties to be enhanced,” said Menes.
“That’s almost going as far a stretch as, if you are a black person and you commit a particular crime, then because you are a black individual, your penalties would be enhanced. What are the floodgates that we’re opening that based on who the person is, we’re going to increase their penalties?”
Rep. Eagle points to Florida’s hate crime statutes as precedence for increasing the severity of criminal penalties. Menes contends the idea goes against the spirit of hate crime laws.
Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, filed the companion measure. Sen. Hutson filed a similar bill for the 2016 session, but it never found a House companion. It’s too early for the bill to be placed on any legislative committee agendas, but Rep. Eagle said predicts smooth passage in the 2017 session which kicks off in March.