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Democrats pounce on Scott's Dreamers veto as a 'step backwards' on immigration reform

Florida Democrats have seized on an opening Gov. Rick Scott has given them to make some noise about the governor's rocky relations with the Hispanic community.

The governor on Tuesday vetoed a non-controversial bill passed with near unanimous support by the Republican-controlled House and Senate that would have helped children of illegal immigrants who attend school in Florida obtain temporary driver’s licenses. 

The bill was seen as non-controversial because the Florida Department of Highway Safety had already been pursuing rules to allow documents obtained by children granted legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to be accepted as one of the forms of identification used to obtain a temporary drivers license in Florida.

The deferred action program was adopted by President Obama last year to allow children brought to this country illegally to be exempt from deportation. It received widespread praise from Hispanics on both sides of the aisle. 

But Scott justified his decision by noting in his veto message that Congress never approved the policy. 

"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," Scott wrote.

In a stream of press releases and at a televised media event in Orlando on Wednesday, Democrats pounced on the governor for going backwards in the progress on immigration reform.

Now dreamers in Florida with no criminal history will have work permits but won’t be able to drive to school or to work – that is nonsense,'' said Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami Beach in a statement. "Today our governor showed us that he lacks the courage to confront the most extreme elements in his party that seek to marginalize immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants."

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, who was joined by several other lawmakers at a press conference there, said the legislature passed the bill because "these young Floridians receiving deferred action require a driver’s license to pursue the American Dream" but Scott’s veto "flew in the face of this fundamental belief, and has effectively denied this opportunity for thousands of young Hispanics, Haitians, and other immigrants legally here in our Great State.” 

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. said the veto "sends a message that he’s willing to play politics with the lives of young people'' and "creates a needless stumbling block for young people who have grown up in our communities and are aspiring citizens."

The bill had passed unanimously in the Florida Senate and with only four no votes in the Florida House -- two in committee by Reps. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, and Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto, who voted for it during final passage; it drew two no votes during final pasage from Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar and John Tobia, R-Melbourne. 

But anti-immigration activists and opponents of the federal Real ID law, objected and, in a move seen as an appeal to the conservative right, the governor vetoed the bill. 

The only vocal opposition came at a April 4 meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Tourism and Economic Development when Paul Henry of the Florida Tea Party Network said the bill was an affront to law-abiding Floridians.

"I’m mad as hell,'' he told the committee, explaining that he was angered that his badge as a retired law enforcment officer was not enough to qualify him to get a Florida drivers license. "I’m mad as hell about how Florida citizens are being treated. This bill gives illegal aliens drivers licenses point and center. Homeland security does not pass laws, they write rules."

Bill sponsor, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, countered that all the bill did was allow these people to use their deferred action document as proof of residency. “These folks will not get anything that a regular citizen of Florida would get,'' he told the committee. "This would not present an unfair situation to the citizens of Florida.” 

The committee then approved the bill unanimously. 

Scott's veto is consistent with his hard line stance against illegal immigration in his 2010 campaign for governor, when he embraced Arizona's immigration law. But when the Florida Senate shut down an immigration reform bill in his first year if office, the governor has backed off the issue to the vocal disappointment of his Tea Party supporters.

Now, the Republican Party of Florida is working aggressively to improve its relations with the state's fast-growing Hispanic population, allocating millions of dollars for voter outreach and candidate recruitment. The veto was greeted with disappointment from some of the governor's followers.

"Jeeze, Rick. Was this necessary?'' tweeted Republican political consultant Ana Navarro.

The Florida House signaled the governor's veto when it modified its routine staff analysis of the bill on May 14 and added the phrase: "subject to the governor's veto powers, the bill has en effective date of July 1."

In the end, the decision by the governor may be but a symbolic victory. Children of illegal immigrants who qualify for deferred action will still be able to obtain a temporary drivers licenses under federal and state law if they have employment authorization from the federal government. 

"The ACLU of Florida sent a letter to the Department of Motor Vehicles today explaining that Tuesday’s veto should have no impact on that policy,'' said Simon of ACLU.