As the Republican Party struggles to improve its standing with Hispanics and other minorities, Democrats tried to draw attention Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott's veto of an unheralded bill that could have helped young, undocumented immigrants get driver's licenses.
The state GOP stood by Scott, saying there is nothing to downplay in the veto of the measure (HB 235).
Democrats "are using a serious issue, which is immigration, which is a serious national problem, and the Democrats are now just trying to do theatrics here in Florida," said state Republican Chairman Lenny Curry. "The Republican Party is united on big things, jobs and education, and if the Democrats want to try to politicize any issue, bring it on, we'll play offense too."
The vetoed bill would have added paperwork from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiative known as "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" to a list of documents that state motor-vehicle officials could accept as proof of identity or legal presence for driver's license applications.
The deferred-action process, while neither conferring citizenship nor permanent-resident status, grants a two-year nondeportation promise to undocumented immigrants under 30 who don't have criminal records, arrived in America before they were 16, lived in the country for at least five years, and were enrolled or graduated from high school or a university or had been honorably discharged from the U.S. military.
Even with the veto, those who qualify for deferred-action status can use that federal application to obtain an employment authorization card, which the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles already recognizes as proof of identification when applying for a driver's license.
In vetoing the bill, Scott pointed out that an executive order behind the deferred-action status has not been approved by Congress.
The late Tuesday afternoon veto caught many off guard.
Ana Navarro, a CNN political contributor from Coral Gables who was national Hispanic co-chair for 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain, tweeted Wednesday that it "would be nice if Rick Scott would at least inform some of his pro-DREAM supporters before vetoing."
The issue was so under the radar that the governor had received more email since the end of the legislative session about the sale of alligator meat and the replacement of the state's lieutenant governor than about the immigrant driver's license bill.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus intends to meet with other minority groups, and he expects they will discuss a potential override of the veto or at least declare their objection to Scott's action.
"There's a lot of groups who all come together and are directly impacted by this issue," Soto said.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, the leader of the Hispanic caucus, was not available for comment Wednesday.
A spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, emailed a terse reply to questions Wednesday, saying "the Legislature exercised its right to support HB 235 by passing it and it's the governor's prerogative to veto it."
A number of Republican legislators did not return calls or emails Wednesday.
The state GOP took the stance that the intentions of lawmakers might have been good, but the party is standing behind Scott for declining to offer special provisions for people whose immigration status may be uncertain.
"National immigration has to be solved," Curry said. "If Senator Soto and his pals care about that, why don't they engage in the national discussion instead of just throwing spitballs from the sidelines."
The Senate unanimously backed the measure. Only two House members cast votes against the bill on the chamber floor. Three others would later alter their votes to oppose the bill.
The Florida Democratic Party estimated the bill would have impacted more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants in the state.
Rep. JosJavier Rodruez, D-Miami, said "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."
Soto and other opponents gathered Wednesday outside the Orange County Courthouse to criticize the veto. He said another rally is planned for Miami on Thursday, and events are being put together for the Tampa Bay region.