Gov. DeSantis plans legislative attack on Florida’s undocumented immigrants
Critics say it’s a hate-filled agenda that will lead to fear, division, violence, discrimination, and a weakened FL
Florida Immigrant Coalition photo
Gov. Ron DeSantis has unveiled an anti-immigration agenda that would deny jobs, education, and possibly health care for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who call Florida home.
If the governor gets his way with the state Legislature — as is likely — all private employers would have to screen potential hires against the dodgy E-Verify database maintained by the federal government.
Undocumented immigrants would lose the ability to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities. That would undo 2014 legislation that DeSantis’ lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nunez, sponsored while serving in the Florida Senate to assist so-called “dreamers.”
These immigrants would lose the ability to practice law, and hospitals would have to report how many undocumented immigrants they treat and how much money it costs. Also, stiff prison sentences would apply for people who transport undocumented people.
Those aren’t bugs; they’re features, DeSantis explained during a news conference Thursday in Jacksonville. The idea, he said, it to make Florida less hospitable to undocumented immigrants.
“If you remove the enticement of employment, then they’re not going to want to come illegally to the state of Florida.”
Human rights groups deplored the initiative.
“These legislative proposals will target everyday Floridians by creating a surveillance state. Anyone, even U.S. citizens, will be subject to arrest simply for giving someone a ride to the doctor, school, or church,” A.J. Hernández Anderson, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, said in a written statement.
“Gov. DeSantis announced a cruel, anti-immigrant, and racist list of upcoming mandates. Gov. DeSantis and his Legislature are once again using hate and heavy-handed use of government power to attack our vulnerable families, friends, and neighbors,” said Tessa Petit, executive director of The Florida Immigrant Coalition.
“This is not just an immigrant issue. This is a morality issue. But most of all, this is a FREEDOM issue. Some of Florida’s elected officials are not only going back on the state’s proud tradition of being a beacon of hope for families fleeing from life-threatening dangers. They are supporting a hate-filled agenda that will lead to fear, division, violence, discrimination, and a weakened Florida. This is not who Floridians are. This is not the Florida we want to live in.”
The announcement clearly targeted President Joe Biden, against whom DeSantis is planning an election challenge (if he can get past Donald Trump) — a placard on the governor’s lectern read, “Biden’s Border Crisis.” The event featured a woman who described her violent rape by an undocumented immigrant. State Rep. Kiyan Michael of Duval County, whose son was killed in a car crash involving an undocumented person, also appeared.
According to the American Immigration Council, some 775,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Florida as of 2020, or 4 percent of the state’s population. Another 909,104 people lived with at least one undocumented family member, including 7 percent of the state’s children.
DACA recipients (those “dreamers” qualifying under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) numbered nearly 25,000 at that time.
The governor’s legislative program amounts to an escalation in his campaign against what he calls “illegal aliens,” including his flights of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., authorization for which the Legislature revamped last week to place on sounder legal footing. A new law allows state agents to round up migrants anywhere in the country for shipment to “sanctuary” jurisdictions lest they wind up in Florida.
He’s also sent state law enforcement agents to help police the Texas-Mexico border and to troll the state’s waters for refugees from Haiti and Cuba. State police conduct routine surveillance on highways entering the state looking for human- and drug-smugglers.
A state law he pushed for bars state agencies from giving contracts to companies that use undocumented labor or commercial carriers that transport them into Florida for the Biden administration. And he convinced the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to recommend solutions for undocumented immigration.
Republican Blaise Ingoglia will sponsor the package but hadn’t appeared to have filed any actual language as of Thursday afternoon.
Under the framework the governor announced, penalties for smuggling undocumented immigrants would increase to a minimum five years’ prison sentence and $5,000 fines; if the immigrant is younger than 18 the punishment would increase to 15 years and $10,000. Each person smuggled would count as a separate offense, and the immigrant could be held as a material witness.
The plan for the E-Verify program might face hurdles even among Republicans. DeSantis signed legislation two years ago requiring government agencies and contractors to run possible hires through the system, to check whether they are authorized to work in the United States. This year, he’s calling for every employer to use the system.
Felony penalties would apply for using false documents to obtain verification.
Back then, the governor was unable to move the broader E-Verify requirement over opposition by business and agricultural interests, but DeSantis said Thursday that he’s counting on additional Republican strength in the Florida House and Senate to make a difference this year.
“We fought the fight …. We ended up with a compromise version that was inadequate. We had a lot on the agenda in the last legislative session, as you guys know. We got done probably more than we’ve ever done. But I also didn’t see the great prospects of success for some of these issues with that legislative configuration,” DeSantis said.
“Well now, we have supermajorities in the Legislature. We have, I think, a strong mandate to be able to implement the policies that we ran on. And these are policies that I’ve been for since the day I became governor over four years ago.”
A recent article in the libertarian publication Reason lays out some of the problems with E-Verify, chiefly that it’s expensive and inaccurate. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has estimated the compliance time burden for employers at nearly 13.5 million hours.
To Republicans who might cave to corporate pressure on this issue, DeSantis said:
“The problem voters have — and I’m a voter too — with some of these Republicans, and you see it a lot in Washington, too, they campaign saying they’re going to do all these things but then when they get up there they don’t want to do it. And that’s the problem.”
Immigration advocates still argued DeSantis’ plan is cruel and misguided.
“Every day, we at the Miami Workers Center see the contributions immigrants and their children make in our state,” Santra Denis, that center’s executive director, said.
“Workers who are immigrants in particular have been the engine of many of the sectors in this state: caring for our children, our elderly, and our sick, keeping food on our tables, teaching our students, and ultimately keeping our state economically and culturally vibrant. Gov. Desantis’ proposed legislation is an attack on our coworkers and neighbors and will create harmful conditions for our communities.”
“More than one in five Floridians were born outside the United States, said Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute.
“Immigrants have inherent worth, and their economic contributions are undeniable. Those without a documented status pay $600 million annually in state and local taxes. There are over 281,000 immigrants who pay tuition and fees at colleges in this state, and 36 percent of Florida’s small businesses are immigrant-owned,” Knight continued.
“Gov. DeSantis’ new anti-immigrant proposal would harm our communities and our state. Florida should be welcoming immigrants’ unique contributions, not vilifying people who call our state home.”
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