TALLAHASSEE – Tough penalties and restrictions aimed at undocumented immigrants in Florida were approved by the state House and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is certain to showcase them in his expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
The measure (CS/SB 1718) was approved in a mostly party line, 83-36 votes in the House, following an emotional debate. Lawmakers from both parties told personal stories of their own immigration experiences, while others recalled challenges faced by earlier generations entering the US
A sponsor of the measure said her support for curbing illegal immigration stemmed from the tragedy.
“I just want it to stop. It has to stop,” said Rep. Kiyan Michael, R-Jacksonville, whose son was killed in a 2007 car crash with a twice-deported undocumented immigrant. “It’s insane if we’re waiting for DC to do something, when we have the opportunity to do this ourselves.”
Rep. Marie Woodson, D-Hollywood, said the GOP-powered legislation was merely designed to intimidate undocumented immigrants, driving them further into an economic underworld.
“Immigrants are the backbone of this country,” Woodson said. “This bill does not reflect the values we share in this chamber. It is cruel.”
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Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate did balk at including a DeSantis call for repealing a 2014 law extending in-state tuition to “Dreamers,” undocumented students who grew up in Florida. But almost every other requirement, penalty or limit on undocumented immigrants that DeSantis wanted is included in the legislation.
The Senate approved the bill 27-13 last week, also divided mostly on party lines.
“This bill is politically driven and it’s an anti-immigrant bill that will hurt and even kill undocumented immigrants,” said Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa.
DeSantis sets the tone, targeting Biden
The governor unveiled most of the immigration package at a February event in Jacksonville where he spoke from a podium bearing a sign, “Biden’s Border Crisis.”
Many Republican lawmakers echoed DeSantis’ theme, saying that the legislation would send a message to the federal government that action was needed to secure the nation’s border with Mexico.
“I will not stand for it to hear people say that this bill is anti-immigrant. it is not. This bill is anti-illegal immigration,” said Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, who came to Florida from Haiti as a 7-year-old with his family, and later became a citizen.
The bill strengthens employment requirements and allows state law enforcement officials to conduct random audits of businesses suspected of hiring undocumented workers.
Criminal penalties are increased for human smuggling, with third-degree felony charges imposed on anyone caught “knowingly” and “willingly” transporting anyone illegally in the country across state lines into Florida.
Transporting a minor or more than five undocumented people into the state carries a second-degree felony penalty. Illegal migrants could also face felony charges by displaying a false ID to obtain employment.
In addition, all businesses with 25 or more employees would be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of new workers.
Under the legislation, local governments would be banned from contributing money to organizations that create identification cards for undocumented immigrants and driver’s licenses issued to non-citizens in other states would be barred from use in Florida, a provision critics say may cause confusion and law enforcement profiling, especially in a diverse, visitor-filled state.
Hospital care is also a target
Hospitals receiving state and federal Medicaid reimbursement would be required to track how much money is spent on undocumented immigrants in emergency rooms.
Hospitals would have to ask patients about whether they are in the country legally, a standard opponent says will discourage many people from seeking health care – even those who have been living for years in Florida cities.
A 2014 law allowing undocumented immigrants to be admitted to practice law in Florida would also be repeated.
“If you think that incentivizes (immigrants) to come to this country, you are dead wrong,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “That’s in the bill just to be cruel.”
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Florida’s targeting of illegal immigration mirrors moves by Texas, with both Republican governors, DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott, seizing on an issue especially animating for GOP voters.
Immigration animates Republicans
Recent Gallup polls show Republicans dissatisfied with high levels of immigration concerned from 40% in 2021 to 71% currently. DeSantis last fall capitalized on the issue by ordering state contractors to pluck about 50, mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas and send them to the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
In a special session in February, the Florida Legislature passed a measure that helped DeSantis halt legal challenges to that action.
But the measure approved Tuesday builds on that by directing that $12 million in taxpayer money go to an Unauthorized Alien Transport Program, which could be deployed by the governor for more relocations that carry the political potential of embarrassing the Biden administration.
Immigrant advocacy organizations blasted the legislation.
“Florida employers and health care providers would be forced to act as law enforcement officials and verify the immigration status of each employee and patient receiving life-saving medical care,” said Jared Nordlund, Florida director for UnidosUS.
“Floridians providing services to immigrants, including churches, attorneys, and social service providers, could be vulnerable to prosecution for doing their jobs,” he added.
Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman, said, “We appreciate the Legislature joining the conversation started by the governor, and we look forward to the bill reaching the governor’s desk in final form.”
Lawmakers took widely different views of taking on an enforcement role usually confined to the federal government.
“Immigrants are not the enemy, hate is,” Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, also a native of Haiti, told the House, describing the measure as a discriminatory overreach.
But Jacques said, “This bill does right by our citizens.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida illegal immigration crackdown: Bill on the way to DeSantis