Florida Governor's Immigration Veto Predicted to Set Off 'Anti-Hispanic Bomb'

Beth Reinhard

Risking a Hispanic backlash in favor of his conservative base, Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday rebuked President Obama's immigration policy by vetoing a bill intended to help children of illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses. 

The governor’s action is largely symbolic since the state already provides driving permits to young people whose deportation has been deferred by the Obama administration. The bill quietly sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature without the governor’s office raising any objections, sponsors said.

In his veto message, Scott noted that Congress never approved the policy enacted by President Obama last year to allow children brought to this country illegally to seek reprieves from deportation. "Although the Legislature may have been well-intentioned in seeking to expedite the process to obtain a temporary driver's license, it should not have been done by relying on a federal government policy adopted without legal basis," the governor said.

The last-minute block and tackle suggests Scott’s sensitivity toward conservative activists, who were aghast when the onetime crusader against Obama’s health care law embraced in February the administration’s proposed expansion of Medicaid. The proposal to accept millions in federal dollars to insure poor people was beaten back by state lawmakers but not without leaving a mark on Scott, who is expected to face a tough reelection campaign in 2014 against former governor and newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist.

Scott’s veto also highlights the Republican Party’s struggle to boost its appeal within the fast-growing Hispanic community. The bill's sponsors said the governor's veto flies in the face of the millions of dollars the Republican Party is allocating to minority outreach and candidate recruitment.

“Make no mistake about it: This will be an anti-Hispanic bomb if he vetoes this bill,’’ said Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto, one of the legislation’s sponsors. “The vast majority of my peers understand we need to encourage immigrants to become working members of our society. It makes no sense that the Scott administration would veto something it’s already doing.”

The House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Randolph Bracy of Orlando, said, “I thought the party was moving in that direction and was behind this bill, and then the governor just comes out of nowhere and does this. Republicans have been talking as a party about Hispanic outreach, and this was only a small step.”

The veto is consistent with Scott's hard-line position against illegal immigration that was at the center of his 2010 primary against former Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott promised an Arizona-like crackdown on illegal immigrants but dropped the topic in favor of more mainstream issues such as jobs and the economy in a narrow general election victory over Democrat Alex Sink.

“Until now, his enforcement record has been a sham compared to his campaign promises,” said Dave Caulkett, vice president of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, which didn’t lobby against the bill because it’s focused on immigration reform on Capitol Hill. “We’re very pleased that he’s realized that the students are not residing legally despite President Obama's declaration to the contrary, and we appreciate the governor’s action.”

The bill passed the House 115-2 and the Senate 36-0. More than 21,000 young people in Florida who were brought to this country illegally have applied to have their deportation deferred under the policy enacted by the Obama administration last year. Nearly 9,000 have been approved, according to the federal government. Most states allow these “deferred action” recipients to obtain driver’s licenses, although Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has sought to block them from getting permits.

The Florida bill would have allowed driver's license applicants to use their deferred deportation approvals as proof of identification. Currently, applicants also have to show a work permit, which frequently but not always arrives at the same time as the approval letter.

Immigration has bedeviled the Republican Party like few other issues, pitting law-and-order and grassroots conservatives against a political establishment desperate to capture a larger share of the booming Hispanic electorate. About seven of 10 Hispanic voters backed President Obama in 2012, leading the Republican National Committee and other party groups to launch sweeping outreach efforts. A broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would allow 11 million undocumented residents to earn citizenship has been championed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio but faces fierce resistance from members of his own party.

In Florida, fueled by a robust Spanish-language television campaign, Scott hit an enviable benchmark for a GOP candidate with 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls in 2010. But his popularity in the community has sagged, with 37 percent viewing him unfavorably and 33 percent viewing him favorably in a Quinnipiac University poll in March.

Scott's challenges go far beyond the Hispanic community, however. Only one of three voters think he deserves a second term, according to that poll, which showed Crist leading 50 percent to 34 percent in a potential matchup. Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown said that winning over independents, not placating conservatives, should be Scott’s top priority.

“Scott needs to make sure they all come home, but Charlie Crist will drive conservative votes to him,” Brown said. “They may not love him like they loved [former Gov.] Jeb Bush, but they like him better than the alternative. The bigger problem is independents who have never warmed to Scott.”