FL House sends immigration crack-down bill to Gov. DeSantis for his signature

Move marks another win for the governor on a key priority

By: - March 9, 2022 5:35 pm

Republican House member John Snyder debates his legislation to deny state contracts to companies that transport undocumented immigrants into Florida for the federal government. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The Florida House voted Wednesday to OK Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to deny state contracts to companies that transport asylum-seekers into Florida for federal immigration authorities, giving the governor a election-year win on another of his priorities.

The 77-42 vote sends the bill (SB 1808) to the governor’s desk, since it has already cleared the state Senate.

Democrats, having failed to soften the language on Tuesday, denounced the legislation as another of the governor’s culture-war initiatives, designed to stroke his base and encourage donations to his campaign for reelection this year and possibly the presidency in 2024.

Orange County Democrat Anna Eskamani predicted DeSantis will make the bill the subject of a fund-raising appeal as soon as it passes.

She noted that, a decade ago, the Legislature voted to grant in-state tuition to Dreamers, immigrants brought here as children.

“What changed, members? The only thing I can think about is President Trump, and the political maneuvering and messaging changed completely and instead of trying to appeal to immigrants now we’re demonizing them, instead,” Eskamani said.

Republicans argued they aren’t anti-immigrant but believe newcomers should go through the legal process to live here.

Bill sponsor John Snyder, representing parts of Martin and Palm Beach counties, argued Democrats were distorting what the bill would do.

“This used to be a bipartisan issue,” he said.  “But what we’ve seen today is turning our broken immigration system into a political theater.”

Republican Webster Barnaby of Volusia County, himself an immigrant from the United Kingdom, said it took him 11 years to earn his citizenship but warned that the United States is undergoing “nothing short of an invasion.”

“For public safety, we cannot allow people to be dropped off in Florida and invade the state illegally and then expect we, the taxpayers of the state, to take care of them,” Barnaby said.

The bill would bar state and local governments from signing contracts with or offering economic incentives to carriers “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 requires county sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding undocumented immigrants in custody.

DeSantis and legislative Republicans cite what they number as at least 78 flights into Jacksonville International Airport delivering undocumented immigrants. They argue the Biden administration is allowing immigrants to pour in through an “open border,” even though it has retains some Trump administration policies.

According to reporting by organizations including CNN, the flights represent the federal government’s program for settling asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, with family members, sponsors, and shelters pending decisions on their claims.

Democrats considered it hypocritical for Republicans who voted on resolutions condemning communism and terrorism to vote in favor of a bill that would make life harder for people seeking freedom in the United States.

“You can’t reconcile a vote on those memorials and supporting those people and the atrocities they’re running from and the sanctuaries they’re seeking when they come here and be disingenuous and support this sanctuary cities bill,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb of Broward County.

Rep. Joe Geller, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, argued that people are fooling themselves if they think their ancestors scrupulously abided by immigration law — one of his forebears lied about his health problems to gain access, he said.

“Don’t give into this fearmongering. Don’t give into this hate. Don’t give into this treating people like they’re not human beings. They are — they’re our brothers and sisters. Treat them decently. Treat them with respect,” Geller said.

Republican Mike Beltran of Hillsborough County compared the companies operating the flights, which are sponsored by the U.S. government as part of its immigration policy, to “coyotes” — human smugglers.

“They would be prosecuted by any conscientious U.S. attorney on their own. But, instead, we have the federal government hiring them and we’re calling it immigration policy,” he said.

Melony Bell, representing DeSoto, Hardee, and part of Polk County, complained that “illegal aliens” contribute to crime. She recounted an anecdotal tale about two buses dropping such people on the street in Sebring with no support or money.

“Where do you think these people are going to end up?” Bell asked.

That drew a rise from Democratic Leader Evan Jenne of Broward County, who argued that migrants are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than native-borns.

“If we’re going to say things on this floor, we need to be certain that they are factual,” he said.

“This bill is yet another example of Gov. DeSantis and Florida Republicans ignoring the actual needs of Floridians and instead focusing on culture war issues meant to stoke hatred and increase divisiveness,” Nikki Fried, the Democratic commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services who is seeking her party’s nomination to run gainst DeSantis this year, said in a written statement.

“It will risk the safety of children and others seeking refuge in the United States, jeopardize our agriculture industry and state economy, and intensify the discrimination that immigrant communities too often endure. It’s heartless, hateful, and completely unnecessary. Unlike our governor, I will always stand with our immigrant communities, our farmworker and agriculture communities, and those who risk everything to escape authoritarian regimes to come to the United States in search of a better life.”

Kara Gross of the ACLU of Florida issued a written statement complaining the bill threatens “vulnerable children, asylum seekers, DACA recipients, individuals awaiting their green card, lawfully admitted visitors who are in the process of renewing or extending their visas, international students or faculty at Florida’s colleges and universities, and U.S. citizens who a common carrier mistakenly assumes may not be lawfully present in the United States.”

She continued:

“Whether someone is authorized to be present in the United States is a complicated and fact-intensive inquiry — one that even the most experienced immigration attorneys could disagree upon based on the individual’s specific circumstances. It is not something that transportation companies have the training or expertise to be able to determine. Nor is it appropriate for the government to force private businesses to make such complex legal determinations in the day to day operations of their businesses.

Note: This report has been updated to include additional comments about the bill.

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.