An aerial view of the American flags flying over an international bridge as immigrants line up next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum on December 22, 2022, in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
The most ambitious bill targeting undocumented immigrants in the Ron DeSantis era will get its first committee hearing on Wednesday in the state Capitol, though one of its most provocative measures — repealing in-state tuition for the so-called student Dreamers — is absent in the legislation.
Currently, the House and Senate bills do not include the repeal of a 2014 state law regarding in-state tuition fee waivers for undocumented immigrant students, or “Dreamers,” at Florida’s public colleges and universities.
That repeal was a plank in the immigration reform package that Gov. Ron DeSantis listed when he introduced his immigration proposal last month.
However, Senate bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia told a Miami television station last week that he intends to include that in the legislation.
“I will tell you that I personally believe that we should do away with in-state tuition for illegal immigrants,” Ingoglia said on WSVN 7News. “That is reserved for people who are legal residents of the state of Florida.” Ingoglia represents west central counties in Florida.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago, the Florida director with the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC), says he understands that the language about repealing in-state tuition is not in the House and Senate bills — as for now.
He and others have been working behind the scenes to ensure any repeal is not included in the final legislation.
Approximately 40,000 students enrolled in higher education classes in Florida are considered undocumented, with about 12,000 eligible for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and 28,000 ineligible, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal.
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.
The sprawling legislation introduced (SB 1718) by Ingoglia in the Senate will require state employers to confirm their employees’ legal status. It also addresses how much the state’s health care system spends on undocumented immigrants, cracks down on undocumented immigrants with driver licenses from other states which were acquired legally, and strengthens penalties on human smuggling.
The Senate measure calls for all private employers in the state to be required to verify all employees hired after January 1, 2021 through the E-Verify system or by requiring that the employee must complete an I-9 form. The House version of the legislation (HB 1617) is sponsored by Duval County Republican Kiyan Michael. Her bill says explicitly that all private employers must use E-Verify.
A similar bill was proposed on E-Verify in DeSantis’ second year in office, but after fierce resistance from sectors of the business community, the final version was considered to be a watered down product.
The business community is likely to oppose the measure this time around as well.
“They see the E-Verify mandate as a direct attack to their ability to continue to create economic revenue here in Florida,” says Vilchez Santiago, of ABIC. “As we know, the key industries that are the basis of our economy like tourism, agriculture and construction – mandating E-Verify will worsen the existing labor shortage gap in these industries.”
Employers who “knowingly employed” an unauthorized immigrant would be hit with a $5,000 fine for a first violation; a second violation within 24 months would result in a $7,500 fine for each unauthorized immigrant employed, and a third violation would result in a $10,000 fine for each unauthorized immigrant employed.
The bill also will invalidate all out-of-state driver licenses or other government ID cards for undocumented immigrants, and any person stopped by a law enforcement official for driving with such a license will be cited as not having any license. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 19 states around the country who issue driver licenses to unauthorized immigrants.
On the issue of health care, every hospital in the state that accepts Medicaid must add a provision on its registration forms for the patient to state whether he or she is a lawful citizen of the U.S – though the bills spell out that the inquiry “will not affect patient care or result in a report of the patient’s immigration status to immigration authorities.”
Those hospitals must then submit quarterly reports to the Agency for Healthcare Administration (AHCA) on how many legal citizens, non-citizens and those who declined to answer, as well as an annual report to the governor and legislative leaders. That report must also describe the costs of such care for the undocumented, and how that impact affected “services to the public, hospital funding needs and other related information.”
That issue is quite concerning for those in the healthcare industry says Vilchez Santiago, “because they just think that’s going to lead to undocumented people not seeking care when they need it.”
Over the last fiscal year, those costs amounted to more than $300 million, according to AHCA data.
The measure would make it a third-degree felony to harbor or transport someone while knowing that person has entered the country illegally. A person who commits five or more separate offenses of this type would then face a second-degree felony.
The House version states that anyone who harbors or transports someone while knowing that person has entered the country illegally who is younger than 18 would also face a second-degree felony.
Those provisions sparked the ire of South Florida Democratic National Committee member Thomas Kennedy, who tweeted that the worst part of the bill is “that it would actually make it a third-degree felony to have an undocumented person in your home or to drive them in your car.”
Those provisions have also evoked concern among some of the state’s religious community.
The Reverend Dr. Jose Rodriguez, OSL, Vicar of Iglesia Episcopal Jesus de Nazaret in Azalea Park in Orange County said in a statement issued by the Florida Immigrant Coalition after the proposal was initially introduced by DeSantis:
“The State of Florida is seeking to criminalize Christianity and the free exercise of religion. Many of the actions the State seeks to criminalize are basic outreach functions of most Christian churches and other faith communities. This is not only an attack on basic human decency and dignity but this is an attack on our religious liberties in the State of Florida. As a follower of Jesus I find it egregious that many Christian and faith based hospitals and shelters will have to violate the Biblical command to treat the foreigner among us as a citizen. No human is illegal but these acts make acting out one’s Christian faith illegal. We should be concerned about the State’s move to create a new category of person – the illegal Christian.”
Immigration reform is an issue that Gov. DeSantis has emphasized since he first took office in 2019, when he initially targeted so-called “sanctuary cities.”
He made international headlines last September when he flew some 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. And as he prepares for what looks like a presidential campaign in 2024, the issue of cracking down on undocumented immigrants consistently gets high approval numbers from Republican voters nationwide.
A poll released last week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that while only 39 percent of Americans approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of immigration, only about 1 in 10 Republicans say they approve of the issue.
Ingoglia’s bill will be heard in the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
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