Mitch Perry - 6/293 - SaintPetersBlog

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

Will there ever be enough $ to keep Floridians completely safe, GOP state senator asks

For the coming year, the state of Florida is asking Washington D.C. to give more than $41 million for domestic security.

That request is prompting one Pensacola Republican to ask if any amount from the feds can indeed make Floridians totally safe.

“Is this the attitude of the American people and Floridians, that we’re willing to spend whatever it takes to be safe in a free society? And can we really do that to make us completely safe? “asked freshman state Sen. Doug Bronson.

“Is there any amount of money that will make us completely safe?”

Broxson aimed his question to Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Mark Glass, an intelligence officer with the FDLE, who were giving the committee a presentation on federal domestic security funding. They said that the more than $41 million requested is more than the state actually needs going into next year, and ensures not having to hit the state Legislature up for additional funds.

Last year, the state received approximately $11 million from the feds for domestic security.

Broxson said that, historically, Florida law enforcement responds well when called upon to handle situations involving suspected terrorism. However, he was concerned about the emphasis on creating an infrastructure to respond to such incidents.

“Do you see us spending massive amounts of money in the next few years to create this infrastructure for protection,” Broxson asked. “Is the public demanding that?”

“Senator, those are some big philosophical questions,” Koon responded. He continued that the state takes funds allocated from the Legislature in the best way deemed possible.

“It is not enough to comprehensively cover every potential threat that Florida will face,” Koon said. “We attempt to utilize those funds in a fiscally prudent manner that allows us to share those resources across the state.”

Neither Koon nor Glass was able to answer Broxson’s question about how much the state spent in total on domestic security when you included local law enforcement combined with what different state agencies are spending. “It’d be … impossible in general to put a total dollar guide on what the state spends,” Koon said, acknowledging that it is “a large amount.”

The state will learn in March how much they will get from Washington.

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Brad Miller takes PSTA’s wish list to Tallahassee

PSTA executive director Brad Miller is in Tallahassee on Tuesday, making the rounds with lawmakers from Pinellas County about the wish list for his transit agency for the 2017 Legislative session.

The visit has been described in somewhat dark tones by critics of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between PSTA and its cross-bay transit partners with HART. The MOU was spurred by Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long’s advocacy for more formal collaboration between the two agencies, with the opportunity to have a greater opportunity to leverage more funding from the state. But critics think it might be a first step towards a possible merger or another push for a sales tax referendum on transportation.

“They intend to use this MOU to go to Tallahassee to request funding for how to pay for Long’s proposal, and how to get the regional sales tax funded,” said Tea Party activisSharon Calvert at HART’s monthly board meeting on Monday.

At the request of HART board member Karen Jaroch, the MOU language was altered to explicitly state that the intention of the agreement is not to lead to a merger and/or sales tax referendum.

The MOU is on the checklist for Miller and four PSTA board members –  Samantha Fenger, Patti Johnson, Brian Scott, and Joe Barkley – to discuss with legislators today.

Also on the list for discussion include a funding request of $2.1 million for airport express service from Clearwater Beach to Tampa International. The goal is to have service seven days a week, running from 5 a.m. to midnight every half-hour.

There is a $1 million ask for a Clearwater Beach Busway, which would convert the raised median on Memorial Causeway Bridge to a bus lane, allowing for a Clearwater Beach to TIA connection.

And another request is for the legislature to increase transportation disadvantaged grants to urban counties like Pinellas.

Other PSTA supported positions are listed below:

  1. PSTA Bus Replacement Funds – $8M ANNUALLY
  2. Increased “Urban Corridor Funds” (Regional Routes) to FDOT District 7
  3. Express Lanes Extend to Downtown St. Petersburg or Shoulders for Buses
  4. Statewide Regulations to Encourage Uber/Lyft-type transportation options tobe available in Pinellas County
  5. Permit Community College Student Fees for Transportation
  6. Multi-Modal Howard Frankland Bridge/SR60 Interchange Funding
  7. Increase State Transit Block Grant Funding
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Former prosecutor, young GOP leader Berny Jacques contemplating run for House District 66

Former Pinellas County Assistant State Attorney Berny Jacques is seriously considering a run for the state House District 66 seat next year, which will become an open seat with Republican Larry Ahern term-limited out.

The 29-year-old Haitian native has been active with the Pinellas County GOP since he arrived in the community in 2009 to attend Stetson Law School in Gulfport. That’s when he says he was drawn into the grassroots aspects of state government.

In many ways Jacques and his family are the embodiment of the American dream. His parents worked two and sometimes three jobs concurrently when they moved to the states in the mid-1990’s.

“They had to work hard to put their children in a better position,” he says. “And to see me go to college and graduate and become an attorney all within their lifetime, I mean, that’s a strong testament to what this nation has to offer, and I think that’s made possible by a free enterprise system that capitalizes on people’s desire to work hard.”

Jacques’ father currently teaches English as a second language in Naples, Florida, while his mother works as a registered nurse at a nursing home. He says they always stressed the power of education when he was growing up.

“They said if you take your schooling seriously and you apply yourself, you can stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone.  I’ve always taken that with me and ran with it.”

Jacques was president of the Pinellas County Young Republican club in late 2013 when longtime U.S. Representative Bill Young died, igniting what would ultimately be one of the most expensive congressional campaigns ever. He got behind David Jolly’s candidacy early on. He also assisted on the campaigns of Chris Latvala and Chris Sprowls in 2014.

If he pulls the trigger and announces later this spring for 2018, he says his platform will center around three main tenets – public safety, education and job creation.

Regarding education, he says you can expect him to be a strong advocate for school choice. On business, he talks about the importance of government creating “the environment” for businesses to grow.

Now working at the St. Petersburg law firm of Berkowitz and Myer, Jacques considers himself “very pro Second Amendment,” saying that he wants to put individuals in the position too protect themselves as much as possible.

On the battle between House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Governor Rick Scott regarding whether or not it’s a good thing to offer tax incentives to lure businesses to Florida, Jacques doesn’t take sides, saying  that “it’s important to understand that they both have the same goals, and that’s to create jobs for the state of Florida.” He does state that the doesn’t want government to choose between winners and losers.

On transportation, Jacques adamantly opposed the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas transit tax. Yet he also says that he wouldn’t oppose changing state law to allow big cities like St. Pete or Tampa to hold their own referendums. Current law only allows counties to do that.

For the past several years, both Rick Kriseman and Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn have unsuccessfully lobbied Bay area legislators to give them the power to tax themselves to pay for rail projects in recent years. Jacques says as a legislator he wants to hear what the people say, and if they want the right to tax themselves, he says he wouldn’t stop them.

“I’m all for empowering voters to make decisions, so  if the people of St. Pete feel it’s appropriate, and it’s clearly stated that here’s the funding structure, and here’s what you’re going to be on the hook for, if they decide then they decide that,” he says, adding that his baseline philosophy is to err on the side of empowering the people to make the decision themselves. “I would probably vote no if you asked me to raise taxes, but my fellow citizen might feel otherwise.”

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Activists march at Marco Rubio’s Tampa office, calling to reject Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

Last month, Marco Rubio had harsh words for Rex Tillerson when he came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as Donald Trump‘s pick for Secretary of State. But the Florida senator ultimately went ahead and supported the former ExxonMobil CEO anyway.

Now protesters are hoping Rubio won’t cave on Betsy DeVos.

With the Tillerson turnaround fresh on their minds, more than two dozen activists gathered in front of Rubio’s Tampa district office Monday, urging him to reject DeVos as the next Secretary of Education when her name comes up for a vote Tuesday.

But they are not expecting him to do so.

“Betsy DeVos is totally uneducated, and she’s totally biased,” said Sue Jenkins, a former Wisconsin schoolteacher who spends winters in Port Richey and summers back in the Midwest. She blasted DeVos for her dedication toward vouchers and privatizing education.

“We privatize the schools; we pay them money. Somebody’s going to make a profit.”

Many of those at the protest want Rubio to recuse himself from the vote because he received campaign contributions from DeVos. Then again, so have a lot of other Republicans in Washington.

DeVos admitted as much in her one confirmation hearing, saying “it’s possible” that she and her husband (Dick DeVos Jr.) have given $200 million to candidates over the years. That includes $2.7 million to GOP candidates in the 2016 election cycle alone, including $5,400 to Rubio.

“She’s clearly not qualified,” argued Pam from Madeira Beach. “The only clarity we got from the confirmation hearing is that she’s against public education.”

Last week Rubio tweeted that “many Democratic colleagues tell me they have heavy pressure from left-wing radicals to opposed everything before they know what it is,” irking some of the protesters.

“I don’t think I’m a left-wing radical nut,” said Tampa resident Jennifer Hollowell. “I’m a 53-year-old stay-at-home mom. I’m just passionate about the issues, and obviously Rubio’s not listening to me, but I am a constituent.”

“He’s been calling a lot of people who have been contacting him ‘extremist liberals’ which is pretty misleading,” added a Brandon woman named Courtney (no last name was given).

Senate Democrats Monday began what is expected to be a 24-hour marathon speech supposed to climax at noon Tuesday, right before the Senate is scheduled to vote on DeVos’ confirmation.

With two GOP Senators (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) announcing their opposition, it could result in a 50-50 tie. If that should happen, Vice President Mike Pence will likely be called to cast the tiebreaking vote for Trump’s selection.

Early Monday evening, Rubio spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci confirmed that Rubio will be voting for DeVos on Tuesday.

“People contribute to Senator Rubio’s campaign because they support his agenda,” Mandreucci said. “Ms. DeVos is a strong supporter of empowering parents and providing educational opportunity for all, policies Senator Rubio has supported for over a decade. Her nomination is opposed by Democrats who take millions of dollars from the big unions obsessed with denying school choice to low-income children. Senator Rubio looks forward to voting to confirm her.”

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At long last, Jamie Grant files bill to kill Hillsborough PTC

Tampa GOP state Representative Jamie Grant has filed a bill (HB 647) that would eliminate the controversial Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

“With new information being made public every day, it becomes increasingly clear that this agency needs to be abolished,” Grant said in a statement. “Everything that has come to light has confirmed what we knew all along; that this agency no longer serves a useful purpose and the residents of Hillsborough County deserve better.”

That ‘new information’ Grant is referring to is the continued negative reports regarding the PTC’s former Kyle Cockream, who resigned at the end of last year.

Over the weekend, expletive-laden text messages between Cockream and PTC chief inspector Brett Saunders surfaced in a story published in the Tampa Bay Times. They were discovered as a result of an investigation being conducted against the PTC by a Sarasota law firm.

Cockream resigned last fall (the second time that he had announced he would be leaving the agency) after former PTC chairman Victor Crist called for an investigation as the result of reports about Cockream showing favoritism towards the taxicab industry. The PTC regulates all vehicle-for-hire companies in Hillsborough County, which over the past three years has included trying to get transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to come to terms with the PTC.

For years, the PTC had agents who had been issuing citations against Uber and Lyft drivers for operating illegally in the county. The PTC and the ridesharing companies did finally come to an agreement last fall.

The announcement of Grant’s legislation is no surprise, as the entire Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation voted to support the bill when he proposed it back in December. It calls for the agency to  end all operations on December 31, 2017.

As of now it is not certain who would inherit the duties of the PTC, although every other county in the state finds a way to do so (the PTC is the only type of agency of its kind in Florida). The Board of County Commissioners could be that agency, although Tax Collector Doug Belden has recently said his office could take over those responsibilities.

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Online poll shows majority of Floridians support sanctuary cities

An online poll of 600 Florida residents conducted by Florida Atlantic University shows that by a 52-36 percent margin, Floridians do not want the Trump administration to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. And a plurality – 46-38 percent – don’t want the U.S. Justice Dept. to take any legal action against sanctuary cities.

However, the same poll also shows that only a slight majority (fifty-five percent) have ever heard of the term ‘sanctuary city,’ before being polled to opine on it. Sanctuary cities are generally defined as localities that help shield undocumented residents from deportation by refusing to fully cooperate with detention requests from federal immigration authorities.

After President Donald Trump signed an executive order threatening to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced that his county would abandon the practice of being a sanctuary city. That decision by itself could affect the fate of more than one million undocumented immigrants. By a 62 to 39 percent majority, those surveyed said that Miami-Dade County shouldn’t end the practice of being a sanctuary county.

Interestingly, the poll also asked if Tampa should become a sanctuary city (the question posed said that it is considering becoming one). By a margin of a 61%-39%, those surveyed said Tampa should designate itself as such.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has said that officially Tampa is not a sanctuary city and would not become one, but that he won’t be directing Tampa Police Officers to act as immigration agents anytime soon. Those responsibilities are actually handled by Hillsborough County. Last week, the Hillsborough County Diversity Council voted 8-1 to recommend that county commissioners look into becoming a sanctuary county, However, County Commission Chair Stacy White says that won’t be happening.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has essentially said the same thing, though he confused some people over the weekend by issuing a statement saying that, “I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws.”

Republicans were the only group who supported cutting federal funds with 70 percent in support and 24 percent opposed.

A full two-thirds  of those surveyed also said they do not want to pay for a border wall on the Mexican border (66 percent to 33 percent).

The poll also shows that 66 percent of those surveyed disapprove of President Trump’s job performance, with only 34 percent approving.

But the attitude of those surveyed was equally critical towards incumbent Democrats. Only 28 percent said he deserves re-election in 2018, while 72 percent said it was time to give someone else a chance.

The online survey was taken between February 1 and February 4, , with a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson appears vulnerable in his 2018 re-election attempt in this poll, with 28 percent saying he deserves re-election while 72 percent said it was time to give someone else a chance.

Of the 600 people surveyed, 148 were Democrats, 147 were Republicans, 144 were independents, and 161 were not registered to vote.

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HART board approves agreement with PSTA – but not without considerable debate

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate and collobarate with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), but only after adding additional language clarifying that it is not a move towards a potential merger or a regional sales tax increase.

That language was needed ostensibly to assuage the MOU’s critics, including HART board member Karen Jaroch.

“The MOU is very vague and I keep questioning what is the need for this? And I haven’t really gotten a satisfactory answer,” Jaroch said.

Of underlying concern to Jaroch and some others is Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long’s aspirations for the two Bay area transit agencies to form a regional council of governments. Such a group, Long told HART members last fall, could provide “better, more nimble” solutions to problems that they currently face. Long’s idea would fold PSTA, HART, and other transportation providers such as the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, ferryboat operations and others under the regional council of government. Certain functions, or entire organizations, could be consolidated within the council of governments concept.

But critics fear that it’s an underhanded move to get another transit tax proposal to go before the voters, which they vehemently oppose.

“They intend to use this MOU to go to Tallahassee to request funding for how to pay for Long’s proposal, and how to get the regional sales tax funded,” said Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert during the public comment portion of the meeting. Calvert and Jaroch have frequently cited a comment by PSTA head Brad Miller last month that he would be going to Tallahassee on Tuesday, February 7, to talk to lawmakers, a day after HART was poised to approve the MOU.

But HART board members Sandy Murman and Mike Suarez said they knew nothing about any trip to Tallahassee, saying that was perhaps being discussed across the bay, but not in Hillsborough County.

“This is an MOU. It is not a merger,” said Murman. “It is a very specific document. It is not broad. It is not general. It is very, very specific. I think to not do this today makes us more or less a ‘do-nothing’ board.”

The discussion comes as state legislators are talking more than ever about the different counties in the Tampa Bay area working together to effectuate change when it comes to moving transportation projects forward. According to a new white paper prepared by the D.C. based Enos Center for Transportation for the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional structure for transportation planning, operations and decision-making is paramount to developing a regional transportation system, and was discussed before the Bay Area Legislative Delegation meeting on transportation held last week in Clearwater.

At that meeting, Barry Shevlin, the co-chair from the transportation working group with the Tampa Bay Partnership,  said HART and PSTA should have a “closer relationship,” but left it open as to how that would happen.

Board member Kathleen Shanahan said with HART constrained financially these days, a closer alliance with PSTA was an opportunity “to leverage an organization in transition,” she said referring to HART.

Suarez said that until the Legislature approves funding for a regional authority, nobody should worry that the agencies were about to merge.

After their last subcommittee meeting, HART attorney David Smith changed language in the MOU so that it now states that it must be approved annually by the HART board. The board went ahead on Monday and put in additional specific language spelling out that it has nothing to do with a potential merger and tax increase, though Shananan expressed frustration for the need to do so. “This is a redundancy over a redundancy.”

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Legislature to hear this week bills regulating ridesharing companies

Will 2017 finally be the year the state of Florida implements a statewide regulatory framework for ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft to operate under?

Legislators have failed to produce a bill over the past three regular sessions in Tallahassee, but hope springs eternal that all parties can come together this year.

On Wednesday, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will discuss a bill sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls (HB 221). St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.

The bill has the backing of Uber and Lyft, as well as Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Technology Council and the Tampa Bay Partnership.

A similar bill failed last year, but because of a change in Senate leadership, Brandes is predicting it will have a better chance of passing in the upcoming session. Uber contended that former Senate President Andy Gardiner was the obstacle to the Senate passing the bill that was sponsored by former Rep. Matt Gaetz in the House.

As has been the case at the local level, the taxi industry is intensely against the bill, arguing it gives transportation network companies an advantage. County governments have long regulated taxi cabs, setting their rates, determining how many can be on the road, requiring background checks and demanding services such as the ability to accept credit cards or serve disadvantaged people and neighborhoods.

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Video: Gus Bilirakis hears (loudly) about the Affordable Care Act at town hall meeting

In the summer of 2009, Democrats heard angrily from Tea Party members about the Affordable Care Act, which President Obama ultimately signed into law in 2010.

Eight years later, it appears Republicans are facing similar heat at their town halls when it comes to repealing the ACA.

Saturday morning in Palm Harbor, Congressman Gus Bilirakis heard clearly (and loudly) from some voters that the GOP better act very carefully regarding the potential of taking people’s health care away. Many in the audience booed the Tarpon Springs Republican throughout his nearly two-hour listening event. Only a handful of people in the room supported the repeal.

Bilirakis tell the audience he would work toward keeping some of the more popular parts of the ACA in a replacement: ensuring those with pre-existing conditions having access to health insurance and that children can stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

Donna Davis, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Tampa group, posted a video of some of the more contentious moments meeting.  POLITICO reports that Davis later put Republicans on notice, warning she would raise an “army of opposition against him if this shit doesn’t stop.” She then accused lawmakers of “willfully” ignoring the wishes of constituents over Obamacare.

Bilirakis, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2016, represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, a Republican-majority district covering much of Pasco and northern Pinellas counties. His district supported for Donald Trump in November.

In January, Bilirakis voted for a budget resolution seeking to defund and begin the process of dismantling the ACA. Although they promised to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, GOP lawmakers have not offered many details for a replacement of the health care law.

Check out this video, being circulated via Facebook Saturday afternoon.

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Rick Kriseman declares St. Petersburg a ‘sanctuary from harmful immigration laws’

Although St. Petersburg isn’t officially classified as a sanctuary city, Mayor Rick Kriseman all but declared that’s exactly what his town is on Saturday. And if the Trump administration wants to deny the city federal funds because of that stance, the mayor’s response is essentially, ‘We’ll see you in court.’

“While our county sheriff’s office is ultimately responsible for notifying the federal government about individuals who are here illegally, I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws,” Kriseman wrote on Medium on Saturday.

“We will not expend resources to help enforce such laws, nor will our police officers stop, question or arrest an individual solely on the basis that they may have unlawfully entered the United States,” the mayor added. “Should our solidarity with ‘Sanctuary Cities’ put in peril the millions of dollars we receive each year from the federal government or via pass-through grants, we will then challenge that decision in court. Win or lose, we will have upheld our values.”

In general, sanctuary cities are defined as localities that help shield undocumented residents from deportation by refusing to fully cooperate with detention requests from federal immigration authorities. The right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies listed Pinellas (as well as Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando) as sanctuary counties in a 2015 report, but that classification has been strongly disputed by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

“When they ask us to do things within the law, we operate with them and their programs to help them take those that are illegal who have committed crimes . . . and get them out of here,”” Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times’ Laura Morel last week.

Although sanctuary cities and counties have existed in some form since the 1980’s, they became a much more potent political flash point in the summer of 2015, after 32-year-old Kate Steinle was fatally shot while walking on San Francisco’s Embarcadero by a Mexican national with a criminal record who had been deported several times.

On the campaign trail last year, Trump vowed to dismantle sanctuary cities, citing those areas for harboring dangerous immigrants who commit crimes against Americans. He followed up on that promise shortly after being inaugurated last month, signing an executive order threatening to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities.

While nearly every mayor of a sanctuary city has brazenly defied Trump’s executive order with rhetoric indicating that they will dig in and resist the threat (and in the case of San Francisco, gone ahead and filed a lawsuit blocking that executive order), Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been one of the few local officials to heed Trump, ordering his jails to comply with requests from the federal government on detaining illegal immigrants.

There have been efforts by immigration activists in Tampa for months to persuade Mayor Bob Buckhorn to convert his municipality into a sanctuary city, and Kriseman acknowledges in his post that he too has received similar requests. Both have deferred on the issue, saying that the responsibility for holding undocumented immigrants is left to their respective county governments and law enforcement officials.

While the issue of sanctuary cities isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s been superseded by the fallout from Trump’s executive order signed last week banning travel into the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.

On Friday, Buckhorn attended Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque, where he called Trump’s actions “an attack on Islam as a religion.”

In his post on the online platform, Kriseman wrote that “the larger debate is no longer about sanctuary cities but about President Trump’s demonization of Muslims and the recent suspension of our refugee program.”

On Saturday morning, the State Department announced that previously banned travelers will be allowed to enter the U.S after a federal judge in Washington state on Friday night temporarily blocked enforcement of the president’s immigration ban.

“We have reversed the provisional revocation of visas under” Trump’s executive order, a State Department spokesman said Saturday. “Those individuals with visas that were not physically canceled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

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