Illegal Immigrants Debate Stirring Controversy, Concern in Florida

The debate in Washington over illegal immigrants is sparking huge protests around the country, and controversy here in Florida too.

Congress is weighing several proposals from banning illegal immigrants entirely to finding a way to let them live and work here legally.

The decisions made in our nation’s capital will have a major impact on Florida’s agriculture industry. An estimated 850,000 people live in Florida illegally, and hundreds of thousands of them are farm workers.

That’s why the state Department of Agriculture supports the George Bush proposal in Washington to create a guest worker program.

Spokesman Terry McElroy says it’s not the same thing as an amnesty program.

“Nobody’s being granted citizenship. It just means if they’re in this country, let’s have a record of them, and if they’re performing a task that otherwise wouldn’t be done, and they’re already here, why not let them do it?”

But some human rights advocates say citizenship should be part of the package. The Florida Catholic Conference wants to see a plan like the one proposed by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy that would let workers seek permanent residency after six years.

Spokeswoman Nancy Powers says otherwise, farm workers would remain permanent second-class citizens.

“It’s taking advantage of people’s labor, using them for their work but saying, you’re not good enough to be one of us. We’re happy to use you, but then you got to go home, and that’s not justice, that’s not treating people with human dignity.”

A third proposal that passed the U.S. House goes to the other extreme, making it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally, punishing employers and putting up fences along the border with Mexico.

If you eat Florida produce, chances are good it was picked by an undocumented worker. That’s why Ag officials say some provisions need to be made for illegal immigrants.

Florida’s agriculture industry has an $87 billion impact on the state’s economy.