Immigration activists, Tampa City Council members at odds on driver’s license issue

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Pro-immigration activists are pushing for the Florida Legislature to support a bill granting driver’s licenses to qualified Florida residents regardless of immigration status, saying it will spur economic growth and make the streets safer.

In Tampa, those activists have been trying to build up grassroots support for the measure by having the City Council pass a resolution showing their support.

Marisol Marquez with the group Raíces en Tampa said she met with six of the seven council members last year about the proposal, and said five of them — Yolie Capin, Harry Cohen, Lisa Monteleone, Frank Reddick and Mike Suarez —  expressed support for the goal, but then didn’t to vote for a resolution doing so  at a council meeting. The council members, though, see it differently.

“We met with every single city council member individually, with their aides, and they told us they were very supportive of our resolution and that if they brought it forward that they would be willing to vote in favor of it,” Marquez said Monday night in North Tampa. “The only person who was right from get-go hesitant about it and said they didn’t have the power to do something about it was Charlie Miranda, so it was no surprise when we showed up that day and he wasn’t supportive.”

Marquez says her group, which is fighting for immigration reform, can’t believe  council members said one thing in private, but another in public.

“For the others to sit there and straight-up lie to us and lie to the people of the community who showed up at their general meeting, was just unacceptable,” she said. “We’re not here wasting our time, wasting these workers times because their meetings are at 8 o’clock in the morning (actually 9 a.m.), which is not possible for a lot of workers. So now that they’re going up for re-election, we want them to show their support, or we don’t want them in office.”

Several council members, though, said although they expressed support to Marquez for either a resolution or a formal letter, her didn’t present anything for  council to vote on.

“They came and met with me in private and I gave my position in the form of support,” District 5 Councilman Reddick said. “But they never presented us a resolution to vote on.”

Reddick said he allowed the group to take a photo of him in his office, but was very disappointed when he saw that photo on social media depicting him as a council member who now opposed the measure.

“If their calling me a liar is going to get me to do something, they’re very mistaken,” District 3 Councilwoman Capin said.

Monday night in front of a Mexican restaurant on Fletcher Avenue, Raices en Tampa distributed small fliers with a picture of Capin and a caption that read, “City Council Woman Yolie Capin — One of the 6 City Council Members to say she never me with us.”

Capin, though, denied saying she didn’t meet with the activists: “This is what I mean. They’re putting words in our mouths.” Capin said she supports the idea as well of providing undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses, but said that after the council discussed the topic at a meeting, neither Marquez nor others from her group met with her again to follow up.

Marquez disputed the council members’ responses, saying that she emailed them a copy of a resolution, and handed them copies of the proposed resolution when she met them in person.

Councilman Suarez said he told the group he would “try to support” a letter supporting the legislation, “But I didn’t say I was going to do it.”

Suarez said he told the group that City Council has no jurisdiction over the issue, and that the issue of undocumented immigrants and driver’s licenses is a bigger problem in parts of Hillsborough County. He said he was disappointed when he asked the group who was sponsoring the bill in Tallahassee and they didn’t know.

As to why the group is targeting City Council members when the power to change the law resides in the Legislature, Marquez said her group is using the same tactics activists used in New York City and Chicago to obtain local support for such a proposal.

The council occasionally weighe in on topics outside its purview, Councilman  Cohen said, such as on environmental issues and Cuba. And certainly other city councils across the country vote in support of other symbolic resolutions. In August, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to support a Move to Amend resolution, a grassroots effort to reverse the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance.

Cohen said he was “very sympathetic” to the difficulties undocumented immigrants face by not being allowed to hold driver’s licenses. He says he has  understanding of the issue having worked in the court system.

“I understand that people that get pulled over for routine traffic infractions who are undocumented have an entirely different set of problems on their hands, and really can be completely terrified by something as simple as a moving violation,” he said. But he said the group just “showed up” at a council meeting demanding  support for a resolution advocating undocumented people be provided with driver’s licenses, “and that’s just not how we do things.” He said when he met in private with the group, it did not have a written resolution for him to support.

Floridians who want a driver’s license now must provide a birth certificate, a permanent residence card, a citizenship certificate as proof of identity as well as a Social Security card or a tax payer ID number.

A bill proposed by GOP state Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, however, would allow license-seekers to present documents issued by foreign governments. Eleven other states have passed such laws.

Marquez said she hope to get a chance to speak soon with House Minority Leader Janet Cruz to talk about the legislation, and said her group will be traveling to Tallahassee during the legislative session to press other lawmakers as well.

Reinces en Tampa said it intends to make its voices heard at Thursday’s City Council meeting at 6 p.m, which could be a problem, Cohen said, because wet zoning applications are on the agenda that evening. Usually the only public comment at those particular hearing deals with zoning, with general public comment taking place at council’s regular 9 a.m. meetings.

Suarez says he’s more than happy to meet with residents and help them but that when they don’t do their homework, it’s hard to be helpful. “They want us to be on board with them, but I don’t think they’ve done enough of their own work to justify whether or not we’re going to be supportive of it or not,” he says.

The issue arises a week before Suarez, Capin and Cohen face re-election challenges at the polls.

Florida Politics was not able to speak to Councilwoman Lisa Montelione before posting this report.

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.