The Latino who could have stopped Florida's draconian anti-immigrant law, but chose not to

Florida’s House Speaker, Jose Oliva, helped steer the controversial legislation despite its negative impact for Hispanic immigrants. Opponents criticize the alleged hypocrisy of Republicans who claim to support Venezuelan exiles, noting that the proposed law will make it easier for them to be deported.
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12 May 2019 – 12:34 PM EDT

A bill banning so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ that passed the Florida legislature last week is causing widespread indignation in South Florida, home to the state’s largest immigrant population, many of whom are undocumented or face losing their current legal status under changes proposed by the Trump administration.

The law has also cast a spotlight on one of the state’s rising stars in conservative circles: the Speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, José Oliva, the son of Cuban-born parents who was raised in Miami and critics now accuse of abandoning his immigrant roots for the sake of political gain. The law was passed with almost unanimous support from South Florida’s Republican legislators, including several who are Hispanic.

“The Miami Dade delegation has been an embarrassment to their community,” said Mike Fernandez, a Cuban-American billionaire and former top Republican Party fund-raiser. “These US born children will surely not want to belong to the Party of Deportation which is hunting down their mothers and fathers,” he added.

The 'Federal Immigration Enforcement' bill 168 (SB 168) requires all state and local governmental entities, including law enforcement agencies, to comply with requests from U.S. immigration officers to detain suspected undocumented migrants. It specifically restricts state and local government agencies from withholding “information regarding a person's immigration status."

Local law enforcement would be required to honor federal law enforcement’s request for an “immigration detainer,” which would require local law enforcement to hold suspected undocumented workers at least 48 hours past their detainer sentences while awaiting federal authorities to pick them up for deportation. The bill also gives the Florida attorney general the power to pursue civil action against governments that don’t cooperate.

The bill was one of the most hotly-contested of this legislative session, with several versions bouncing between the House and Senate over the past two months, including efforts to create exceptions for some categories of immigrants, including Venezuelans and Nicaraguans facing deportation to their crisis-stricken nation where the respective regimes of Nicolas Maduro and Daniel Ortega are under heavy U.S. sanctions for alleged corruption and human rights abuses.

“This law is going to affect a large number of people who have been unable to obtain legal status for one reason or another. Now, if they get detained they will be deported,” said José Colina, a former Venezuelan military officer who fled his country in 2002 and is president of the Miami-based group Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile (VEPPEX). He estimates there are 70,000 undocumented Venezuelans in the United States, mostly in Florida.

“It’s a great hypocrisy because those same politicians come to our communities to talk about the cause of democracy in Venezuela, saying they are with us, and then they do this, pass laws that gives us no protection and hurt us.”

Florida's Republicans have courted the Venezuelan exiles, making common cause with the far larger Cuban American community, to attack the Maduro regime while accusing Democrats of being too soft on socialism.

Other exemptions were raised for thousands of Central Americans in jeopardy of losing a ‘Temporary Protected Status’ (TPS), that currently allows them to remain and work in the United States, as well as the young ‘Dreamers’ who were brought to the country as children by undocumented migrants. The Trump administration has sought to eliminate protections for both TPS holders and the Dreamers.

The SB 168 ban was a top campaign promise by the state’s Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, in the 2018 election, even though no Florida city has actually declared itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. DeSantis ran as a hardline conservative with the strong personal endorsement of Donald Trump, and made the sanctuary city ban a key talking point in his inaugural address and State of the State speech in March.

Since his election he has distanced himself from the president on a number of issues, especially the environment, but he has remained committed to the tough anti-immigrant policies which many analysts consider to be the bedrock of Trump’s populist appeal to his political base.

“The Republican party today has made the calculation that the third rail issue is immigration. To not take a draconian anti-immigrant position is to out your political viability in jeopardy,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami Democratic party pollster and host of the podcast, Strange Days with Fernand Amandi. “DeSantis is showing he can count. He knows how his bread is buttered,” he added.

The bill passed the state Senate 22-18 and the state House 68-45 and DeSantis has given every indication he will sign it. Senator Anitere Flores of Miami, was the only Republican to vote against it. In the House, Representative Vance Aloupis of Miami, and Representative Rene Plasencia of Orlando, the only Republican lawmakers to cross party lines.

The Republican governor praised the bill after its passage last week and said in a statement, "We are a stronger state when we protect our residents, foster safe communities and respect the work of law enforcement at every level."

"It's a complex issue. One the one hand the legislature has a duty to pass laws to keep us safe," said Jorge Bonilla, a conservative radio talk show host in Orlando, who supports DeSantis. "But, we don't want those vulnerable Venezuelan and Nicaraguan communities to get hurt by this. I'm confident that at some point they will try and get that sorted out."

Political analysts say Oliva has built a close relationship with DeSantis by backing his campaign for Governor early on. In return for supporting DeSantis’ on immigration and other issues such as education reform, Oliva received the governor’s support on his pet cause of reducing healthcare costs by free market reforms to greater hospital competition.

“My suspicion is that he (Oliva) doesn’t care about the sanctuary issue one way or another,” said one veteran political consultant who asked not to be named.

But Oliva helped steered the controversial bill through the House, pushing through a tougher House version of the bill after the Senate tried to water it down. “ Whether he cared or not, he bears total responsibility. Had he not wanted the bill to get through he had the power, ability and rationale to kill it,” said Amandi.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called for people to not travel to Florida if the bill becomes law.

It warned that passage of the bill “would undermine local governments’ ability to protect the civil rights of their residents by forcing local officials to cooperate with ICE,” citing evidence that that federal immigration authorities have asked Miami-Dade to hold at county jails hundreds of people who turned out to be U.S. citizens. “Both Florida residents, citizens and non-citizens, and travelers could face risks of being racially profiled and being detained without probable cause,” the ACLU Florida Chapter states on its website.

The bill could also result in victims and witnesses to stay silent for fear of deportation.

Miami’s police chief, Jorge Colina publicly denounced SB 168 on Spanish-language radio telling interviewers he would rather be fired than forced to comply with the proposed law. “I don’t care if you don’t have papers, where you came from, or who your parents are,” Colina said. “That’s not my job. My job is to make sure everyone in this city is safe.”

Rising star

Oliva, 46, has shot to fame in the last two years after he became the first representative from Miami-Dade County to hold the two-year speakership since Marco Rubio in 2007 and 2008. Now a U.S. Senator, Rubio used the speakership as a launching pad for his career on the national political stage, including a 2016 presidential bid.

However, Oliva has said that despite holding one of the three most powerful positions in Florida, he has no political ambitions after his terms runs out next year. Independently wealthy, he came to Tallahassee by a different route and is not beholden to the political system in the way many politicians are.

His small-government philosophy has made him an ardent supporter of healthcare reform, blaming spiraling health costs on government-subsidized monopolies. He made no secret that his top priority in the 2019 legislative session was to push for cost-cutting reforms, such as removing the requirement for new hospitals to prove there a local ‘need’ and allowing more competition between clinics and hospitals.

Despite his Cuban roots, Oliva has stayed largely out of the debate over U.S. policy towards Cuba’s communist rulers, or the current political crisis in Venezuela. Instead, he prefers home grown issues, such as healthcare, abortion, gun control and education.

However, he is a director of the Cuban Liberty Council which is at the forefront of the hardline exile cause in support of a tougher embargo against the Cuban government.

Self-made cigar man

When not attending the House of Representatives, Oliva runs his family cigar company. He declined to be interviewed for this article, his staff saying he was spending time with his wife and three children after the end of the busy two month-long legislative session in Tallahassee.

Oliva, who represents the Miami Lakes district in North Miami, describes himself as a small government, conservative Republican who believes in deregulation. “I think people should be able to make the decisions that they would like to make for themselves,” he told CBS Miami's Jim DeFede in a rare interview in March about his legislative priorities. “I don’t want to encumber someone’s ability to make their decisions. I don’t want to tell anyone how to live their lives.”

In a discussion about abortion, Oliva used the term “host body” to describe pregnant women, later apologizing for his choice of words saying he had no intention of demeaning women by using a term used in medical ethics writings. “I strongly believe both mother and child have rights and the extent and balance of those rights remain in question.

He famously incorporates his family cigars into his political work, schmoozing with politicians at his home in Tallahassee. The family began in Cuba’s cigar industry in the 1800s, according to the company’s website. Oliva’s parents left Cuba in 1964, moving to Nicaragua before settling in the United States in the 1970s.

He quit university before graduating to start his own company with his brothers in 1995 in the midst of a U.S. boom in cigar smoking. The brothers lived together in the same apartment and shared one car until they saved enough to expand, according to the Herald. The business took off, and they now employ more than 1,000 people, mostly at their factory in Nicaragua, with total annual production of 15 million handmade cigars. Oliva listed his net worth as $12 million on his state financial disclosure forms in 2015, with as annual income of $1.2 million.

In 2014, the company’s top-rated cigar, Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado, was named “Cigar of the Year” by Cigar Aficionado. The company was purchased by a major Belgian cigar maker in 2016, though the Olivas were kept on, creating an unprecedented transatlantic tobacco alliance with a $100 million turnover.