ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum on Wednesday proposed tougher curbs against illegal migrants in his melting-pot state which he said would go "one step further" than a similar contested Arizona law.
The proposal by McCollum, who is lagging in a race to become the Republican candidate for governor, was certain to thrust Florida into the heated immigration debate that is a major issue ahead of Nov. 2 midterm Congressional elections.
"This legislation will provide new enforcement tools for protecting our citizens and will help our state fight the ongoing problem created by illegal immigration," McCollum said, presenting the proposed measures at an event in Orlando.
"Florida will not be a sanctuary state for illegal aliens," added McCollum, accompanied by Representative Will Snyder.
The legislation will require Florida law enforcement officials to check a suspected illegal immigrant's status in the course of a stop, or a violation of another law. This goes beyond the existing situation in the state where officers are allowed to check immigration status, but not required to.
Florida, especially its southern portion, is a major U.S. migration destination for nationals from the Caribbean and Latin America, making it a cultural and racial melting-pot.
Many migrants work in the Sunshine State's $9 billion citrus sector, or in other farm industries and tourism.
In the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Democrats hold majorities. But public opinion polls show Republicans gaining ground with an agenda that includes calls for cracking down on illegal immigration.
McCollum's office said the proposed Florida legislation goes "one step further" than a similar law introduced in Arizona, which has triggered protests and a constitutional challenge from President Barack Obama's administration.
"I think Arizona is going to want this law," McCollum said.
Earlier this year, the Arizona legislature passed a law to try to drive illegal immigrants out of the state and stem the flow of human and drug smugglers over the border from Mexico.
A federal judge has since blocked the Arizona law's most controversial provisions, handing a victory to the Obama administration, which argued the measure was unconstitutional.
According to his office, McCollum's proposed Florida legislation offers more teeth than the Arizona law by giving judges and law enforcement officers more tools in dealing with illegal immigrants, from bond rulings through to sentencing.
His office said the Florida proposal also was strengthened against "potential constitutional challenges." It addressed the objections raised by the federal judge in the Arizona case by clarifying better the "reasonable suspicion" circumstances in which officers should check immigration status.
The Arizona law sparked fierce protests by immigrant supporters and civil rights groups, who said it encouraged racial discrimination against foreign immigrants.
Anticipating this criticism, McCollum's office said his proposal for Florida "will not allow for racial profiling."
The proposed legislation's provisions require that aliens carry immigration documentation or face a possible misdemeanor penalty of up to 20 days in jail for the first offense.
It allows judges to consider immigration status while setting bond and sentencing. It foresees enhanced penalties against illegal aliens who commit further crimes in Florida,
In addition, the bill requires Florida businesses to check on immigration status of workers.
Some Hispanic associations and migrant groups in Florida have condemned the Arizona law and warned of damaging consequences if similar measures are introduced here.
Obama and his fellow Democrats back a comprehensive reform of immigration policy to tighten border security, but also to allow the 11 million illegal immigrants working in the United States to get onto a path to citizenship.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Jackie Frank)
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