House panel ignores pleas to rethink Gov. DeSantis’ latest immigration crackdown

‘Why are you attacking kids that look like me?’

By: - February 3, 2022 2:03 pm

A 12-year-old with roots in Honduras and Mexico urged a House committee Thursday to say No to legislation requiring law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration officials and denying contracts to companies that transport kids seeking asylum.

“Why are you attacking kids that look like me?” wondered Zachary Olivos, who lives in Gainesville.

“Kids who are just kids? We are not criminals. We’re just kids. With all due respect, why is the Florida House even considering laws that target children? What did these kids ever do to you?”

On a mostly partisan vote of 12-5, the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety voted to ignore that plea, instead siding with Gov. Ron DeSantis in his latest attack on asylum seekers and the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

Bill sponsor John Snyder, a Republican representing parts of Marion and Palm Beach counties, urged his colleagues not to fall prey to such sympathetic appeals. People are coming not only from Central America and Mexico, but from “every corner of the earth that know, if you can make it to Mexico, there’s an open ticket,” he argued.

State Rep. John Snyder. Credit: FL House

“I understand that there are a lot of folks who love to get the soundbites in to show that they are standing up to the executive office,” Snyder said.

“But we all raised our right hand and we swore an oath to defend not only the Constitution of the State of Florida but the Constitution of the United States. And we know, through a complete dereliction of duty, that the federal government has allowed the southern border to be an open stream.”

The bill would bar state and local governments from signing contracts with or offering economic incentives to common carriers, meaning air or ground transportation, “willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting an unauthorized alien into the state of Florida knowing that the unauthorized alien entered into or remains in the United States in violation of law.” It also would toughen requirements that local jails cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding undocumented inmates.

DeSantis urged the Legislature in December to enact the crackdown. Running for reelection this year, and possibly for president in 2024, he’s attacked President Joe Biden over mercy flights of undocumented unaccompanied minors to Florida for placement in children’s shelters or with sponsors, and the state has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end the practice.

The Senate version (SB 1808) has already cleared the Judiciary Committee and is pending before the Appropriations Committee.

Presidential aspirations

In the House committee, Democrat Michael Grieco of Miami-Dade County noted that not a single law enforcement agency sent anyone to support legislation ostensibly shoring up crime prevention.

“I’m down on the bill for about 100 reasons, but I would have loved to have heard from somebody from some police department, some sheriff’s department, some organization that thought that this was a good idea,” Greico said.

Geraldine Thompson of Orange County argued the state has no businesses legislating immigration policy — that that’s Congress’ job. “This is a guise for a presidential election and it is beyond what we are supposed to do as state legislators,” she said.

Andrew Learned, a Democrat from Hillsborough, agreed that the measure is intended “to satisfy the Twitter trolls of the governor and his presidential ambitions.”

But James Bush III, another Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade, speaking in support of the bill, referred to news reports “about children being used as pawns to smuggle people into the country.”

“At some point, we’re going to have to straighten this out. If we don’t address it now, we’re going to continue to put a Band-Aid approach on this problem,” he said.

Republican Mike Beltran, also of Hillsborough County, also supported the legislation.

“We have businesses that are conspiring, unfortunately, with our federal government to violate our law. If this was done by a private company on its own, they would be indicted by any conscientious United States attorney,” Beltran said.

Snyder conceded he doesn’t know how many contractors we’re talking about. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” blaming federal officials for not disclosing the information to state and local law enforcement.

“We’re prohibiting something that does not exist?” Thompson asked.

“Do we have a list of known violators? We do not have that at this time,” Snyder said. “While we certainly will work to uncover that, I do believe this is a proactive measure as well, to try and really do anything that we can within our powers as a state to try and curb this harmful behavior.”

He insisted the bill would not target “faith-based” organizations that assist asylum seekers and refugees unless they qualify as a common carrier. Neither would it apply to Afghan refugees fleeing the country because of assistance they rendered to U.S. and allied forces there, he asserted.

Jennifer Molina, Zachary’s mom, also appeared, describing herself as an Honduran immigrant. She was among a number of speakers who read letters written by people airlifted into the United States during the early 1960s from Cuba, and who urged committee members to vote No.

Organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the ACLU of Florida and the Florida State Conference of NAACP branches opposed the bill.

So did Maxwell Frost, a community organizer running for Congress in the Orlando area, who called it “immoral.”

Lobbyist Karen Woodall speaks at a Capitol press conference. Photo via Twitter

A veteran social justice lobbyist, Karen Woodall of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, thanked Snyder for not referring to these people as “illegal aliens” — “as that has often been done and it’s kind of offensive.”

“The children that arrive at the border alone, that are placed on airplanes or buses, have gone through a process, and the Department of HHS is required by federal law to take them in and transport them. The transport is not illegal,” Woodall said.

“So, all the conversation about planes arriving and children being smuggled and it’s in the dead of night — it isn’t correct, and it’s meant to kind of inflame this whole issue,” she said.

‘Routine practice’

Ida Eskamani, representing the Florida Immigrant Coalition, underscored that point.

‘These flights are routine practice. Flights transferring migrants, including undocumented children, have been occurring during multiple presidential administrations, including that of President Donald Trump,” Eskamani said.

“These flights occur at night not to hide from anyone. These are public airports. They are at night for logistics.”

Ashley Hamill, director of the Immigration and Farmworker Project at the FSU College of Law, which represents immigrants with legal problems, including unaccompanied kids, some as young as 7 years old, spoke against the bill.

“The Trafficking Victim Protection Reauthorization Act requires the federal government to reunite unaccompanied minors with their parents and families, to protect them from human trafficking and child abuse,” she said.

The bill’s definition of “unauthorized alien” would apply to these children because, under federal law, they can’t seek asylum until they’re reunited with their families or placed with caregivers such as the FSU clinic, Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services, Hamill said.

She noted that 200 religious leaders have appealed to DeSantis to rescind his policy of denying state contracts to organizations that shelter migrant children under contracts with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“The common carrier provision of this bill punishes private companies from contracting with the federal government to transport these vulnerable children and is directly tied to these executive orders,” Hamill said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.