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On immigration, to take or not to take a position? For Dade lawmakers, that is the question

Is immigration a local issue in Miami-Dade? And if so, should county lawmakers vote to take a stand on it before the state's next legislative session?

The Miami-Dade delegation met for the second time this month on Wednesday -- not take positions on controversial issues, but to listen to nonprofits asking for lawmakers' help in Tallahassee.

Yet the first group to speak asked about immigration, perhaps the most contentious issue in this year's session. And that prompted Democratic state Rep. Luis Garcia to "demand" that his colleagues vote to stand against any anti-immigrant proposals that could crop up in session. Gov. Rick Scott has said the issue is still one of his legislative priorities.

"I can't think of any issue that is more important to Dade County at this point in time than the immigration issue," Garcia said. "We've got to send a message to the state."

State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Republican and the delegation's chairman, said legislators would meet in Miami-Dade later this year to vote on their priorities. He pointed out that most, if not all, of Miami-Dade lawmakers had either taken a public position or voted against immigration proposals in the past -- but warned that the issue would likely not, in his view, qualify as a delegation priority.

"This is not a Dade County issue," he said. "This is a state of Florida issue. This is a United States of America issue, and it does not meet the threshold of what would be considered a Dade delegation issue" because it does not affect the county specifically.

Garcia did not like that answer. He criticized Lopez-Cantera for not allowing a vote on the issue Wednesday.

"You accused me of trying to politicize the process," Garcia said. "With all due respect, sir, we're politicians. What we do here is political."

Garcia, a Cuban-American with a thick accent who has taken to wearing his U.S. passport around his neck around the state Capitol, announced this summer that he plans to run for U.S. Congress.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Republican, agreed from the dais with Lopez-Cantera's assessment, pointing out that the delegation doesn't have any proposals before it yet to take a stand on.

"What leaders don't do is take positions based on hyperbole," Fresen said. "I think most of us, if not all of us, stand completely behind the general thought that you're making."

State Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Republican who spoke and voted in committee against a proposed immigration bill in the Legislature this year, asked for the issue to be discussed at the delegation's next meeting.

The discussion between legislators began after Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition urged the lawmakers to support immigrants -- and businesses who employ them.

"It is very, very important that you as our leaders hold the line against these bills that harm us so much," Rodriguez said.

She joked that even though she brought her child to Wednesday's meeting, "we're not doing praying today," a reference to the hordes of immigrants that stood vigil at the state Capitol for weeks during session.

For the session that begins in January, Rodriguez said, her group wants to be partners and work together with legislators.

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Democrat, tried to reassure her: "We understood the issue very well," she said.