Florida editorial roundup
The Associated Press
Jan. 17, 2018
Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
South Florida Sun Sentinel on the treatment of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria:
In the best of times Puerto Rico suffers the pangs of poverty. The island's 3.4 million residents struggle to keep afloat. Government teeters on collapse.
And life in the hurricane belt constantly threatens Puerto Rico's tenuous grip on tranquility, making it one big storm away from disaster.
That storm struck last September when Hurricane Maria tore through the commonwealth's heart, decimating power lines, homes, roads, bridges, hospitals — all the basics of life.
Four months later nearly a third of the island remains dark, nearly all of its hospitals are working under make-shift conditions, hundreds of schools are closed and the death toll rises as more sophisticated assessments are made.
The latest estimate for a complete restoration of power on the island is May, just in time for the 2018 hurricane season. Congress has been willing to provide funds for restoration of the power grid and general infrastructure, though a looming debate over a government shutdown could further hurt the reclamation effort.
Moved by the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, help has come from private donors and mainland utility companies. FPL has contributed light poles and manpower. Its latest contribution was 140 linemen who will help speed the re-electrification process.
The growing presence of Puerto Rican voters in Florida hasn't gone unnoticed. Former Miami Beach mayor and gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine on Tuesday called the federal response to Maria "one of the most embarrassing moments in American history," at a campaign appearance in Orlando.
Both Florida senators have been outspoken backers of help for Puerto Rico, along with a contingent of New York congressmen and women with heavy Puerto Rican constituencies.
A long held hope among many Puerto Ricans was statehood. The cry has broadened in face of the hurricane, though it appears unlikely.
While there is no shortage of rhetoric and loudly expressed sympathy for the Puerto Rican plight, neither is there a shortage of criticism.
From the moment Maria's category four winds stopped blowing, it was evident that Puerto Rico was facing a disaster of epic proportions. It was equally evident that its residents — all U.S. citizens, by the way — would need help commensurate with the storm's ferocity, and need it quickly.
They didn't get it, at least as soon as it was needed and not in the magnitude it was promised.
President Trump explained the delay with a reminder that Puerto Rico was an island and thus hard to get to. To his credit, he traveled to the storm-tossed island four times, though his visits often accomplished only hard feelings.
Puerto Rico should be proud, he said in one press conference. With only 16 dead, Maria didn't compare with "a real catastrophe like Katrina."
That preliminary death toll was challenged by CNN, The New York Times and Puerto Rico's bureau of vital statistics. Using more sophisticated tracking, it became clear that the number of dead would significantly grow to at least 1,000, likely more.
Piqued by complaints from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of slow government response, Trump offered a complaint of his own. "They want everything done for them when this should be a community effort," he said, apparently forgetting the community's incapacity to help itself.
Trump seemed bent on setting new records for insensitivity.
Asked how he would rate FEMA's response to the island's escalating woes, he barely paused for a breath. "Ten" on a scale of one to ten. At that point more than 1 million Puerto Ricans were without power, running water or protection from the elements.
And as if he couldn't do more to disillusion Puerto Rico's battered masses, he reminded them in a tweet "We cannot keep FEMA, the military .and first responders there forever," a remark his staff quickly walked back after gasps of disbelief from exhausted Puerto Ricans.
Florida has a special relationship with its neighbor Puerto Rico, and will likely become the new home of islanders hoping to start a new life. That was a trend even before Maria struck.
Unemployment on the island was acute. The government's debt topped out at $74 billion, pushing it into bankruptcy. The existing infrastructure pre-hurricane was abysmal. And government corruption only made matters worse.
Still, a humanitarian collapse is unfolding almost within our sight in a U.S. territory. Yet at times, we seem to regard Puerto Rico as a foreign country. Indeed, recent polls show that a majority of U.S. citizens believe it is a foreign country or don't know one way or another.
Puerto Rico is entitled to U.S. government help just as California, New Jersey, Louisiana or Florida are. We owe it and would expect to get it when it's our turn.
Orlando Sentinel on the survival of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program:
Last week leaders in Congress appeared close to a deal that would allow about 700,000 immigrants brought illegally to this country as children to stay and keep contributing to their communities and the nation's economy. Then the negotiations on the fate of these "Dreamers" and other immigration policies exploded in controversy over President Donald Trump's reported slur against Haiti and African countries. On Friday, Trump tweeted that a deal was "probably dead."
If so, it's time for a speedy resurrection.
Beating a realistic deadline
It's vital for Florida and the rest of the nation that the Republicans and Democrats who have been haggling over immigration policy put aside any hard feelings and send a done deal to the president by the end of the week. Before last week's uproar, Trump told leaders he'd be willing to sign whatever bill they send him. But this coming Friday is the "realistic deadline" to begin the lengthy and complex process of extending work authorization and deportation protection for the Dreamers before the order that provides both expires March 5, according to three former U.S. homeland security secretaries who signed a joint letter to Congress this month.
One of the House negotiators, Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, urged his colleagues not to give up. "We've lost a number of days, which is unfortunate," he told the Naples Daily News this week. "That is why I"m saying let's focus on the issues of getting this done."
President Barack Obama issued the order in question, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in June 2012 to offer renewable two-year work permits and protection from deportation to immigrants brought illegally to the United States before their 16th birthdays. Eligibility was limited to students, high-school graduates or honorably discharged military veterans who registered with the government, paid a fee and cleared a criminal background check.
In September, facing a challenge over the legality of DACA from attorneys general in red states, Trump announced the order would be rescinded in March. That left Congress ample time to agree on legislation that would put a solid legal foundation under the policy. But the process has dragged on amid disputes over other immigration issues, including Trump's demand for billions of dollars for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The high cost of letting DACA die
Terminating work permits for the approximately 33,000 Dreamers in Florida would cost the state's economy $1.5 billion a year, according to FWD.us, an advocacy group founded by technology industry leaders. Nationally, the group says, ending the program would siphon $460 billion from the U.S. economy over the next decade.
And though a federal judge in California ruled last week that the Trump administration couldn't dismantle DACA while a legal challenge to its decision was pending, the administration announced its intention Tuesday to appeal the ruling directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress would be foolish to assume DACA will survive without intervention from lawmakers.
The three former homeland security secretaries who wrote Congress this month — Jeh Johnson and Janet Napolitano, who served under Obama, and Michael Chertoff, who served under George W. Bush — made a strong case for reviving protections for Dreamers. "Our country is better if these individuals do not have to spend the next few months planning for a future where they cannot work legally and could be deported at any time, many to countries they do not remember," they wrote.
Other groups echoing this message in letters of their own have included a coalition of 115 major U.S. business leaders, an alliance of more than 200 university presidents and a bipartisan group of 11 governors. Florida's Rick Scott didn't sign the governors' letter, but in September he said, "These kids must be allowed to pursue the American Dream, and Congress must act on this immediately."
While many Democrats seeking a DACA fix have been insisting on a "clean bill," that's not a politically realistic expectation when Trump and fellow Republicans in charge of the House and Senate want changes in other immigration policies. What the homeland security secretaries called "sensible increases in border security funding" is a reasonable price to pay for making DACA permanent policy.
Negotiators from both parties had fashioned a reasonable compromise on multiple immigration issues, including DACA, before last week's blow-up. They need to pick up where they left off — before time runs out.
The Gainesville Sun on criminal justice reform in Florida:
Criminal justice reform might finally have momentum in the Florida Legislative, but that shouldn't stop officials in Alachua County from continuing to make reforms on the local level.
This week, members of the conservative groups Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute took part in an event with academics outside the Florida Senate. They were there to highlight a new national report that calls for re-examining criminal justice issues such as mandatory minimum sentences and the use of cash bail.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he sees the potential for bipartisan reforms, the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported.
"I think you're going to see us reach consensus on a variety of topics in areas that just a few years ago we would've felt not within reach of this Legislature," he said.
A breakthrough is needed in Florida, which is behind the rest of the country in implementing comprehensive reforms. Republican-led states such as Alabama, Georgia and Texas have approved such measures in recent years due to their value in saving taxpayer money by reducing incarceration levels while also better preventing recidivism.
Florida currently spends more than $2.4 billion annually incarcerating nearly 100,000 people, the nation's third-largest prison population. State lawmakers are this year considering some common-sense reforms that would help reduce those numbers.
One measure would allow judges to have more discretion when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level drug crimes, allowing them to divert offenders into treatment instead of prison.
"One gram (of drugs) can mean the difference between three years, five years or 15 years," Brandes, the bill's sponsor, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Another measure would increase the threshold for which a theft is considered a felony in Florida to $1,500 from $300. Florida has one of the lowest thresholds in the country and hasn't increased the amount since 1986. The low amount means someone convicted of stealing a cell phone can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
No matter what happens in the Legislature, action on the local level is also needed to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A recently released study of racial inequity in Alachua County found that blacks are about four times more likely to be arrested than whites here, with black juveniles seven times more likely to be arrested than whites — a rate about twice as high as seen statewide.
Local law enforcement agencies have already identified the issue as a problem, discontinuing the arrest of minors 12 and younger and using civil citations for children arrested for minor crimes. An initiative is underway in the State Attorney's Office to also keep adults arrested for minor crimes out of the court system.
The Sun-sponsored Gainesville For All initiative has supported such changes and is set to announce new recommendations next month. If the state finally passes additional reforms as well, needed progress can be made in addressing disparities in the criminal justice system and the high cost of mass incarceration.