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Senate backs controversial immigration changes

Photo by Kerwin Elias on Unsplash

By Dara Kam

News Service of Florida

April 28, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — With Democrats saying the proposal could lead to racial profiling, the Florida Senate on Friday passed an immigration package that Republican supporters said is aimed at forcing the federal government to address an “invasion” of migrants into the country.

The bill includes a number of provisions requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who drew national attention last year after his administration flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The measure includes $12 million for similar efforts, steering the money to the state Division of Emergency Management for the “Unauthorized Alien Transport” program.

DeSantis and the Legislature in recent years have passed a series of changes to target illegal immigration, including a 2019 law that banned so-called sanctuary cities. A federal appeals court this month tossed out a constitutional challenge to that law. The governor has made immigration changes one of his top priorities for the legislative session scheduled to end May 5.

The Senate bill (SB 1718) would require businesses with 25 or more workers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of employees. Since 2021, such businesses have been required to use E-Verify or what are known as I-9 forms.

The bill also would beef up sanctions against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants, allow state law-enforcement officials to conduct random audits of businesses’ compliance with the law and increase penalties for human smuggling.

“We can no longer turn a blind eye to what’s happening. It is time for us, the state of Florida, to step up and tell the federal government to fix this problem because we are no longer standing for it,” bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said.

The measure would require hospitals to track how much money is spent treating undocumented immigrants in emergency rooms, a requirement that Democrats warned could have disastrous results for sick or injured people who might not seek treatment because they don’t want to disclose their immigration status.

“We have 14- and 15-year-old Haitian American rape victims who will now not go to the hospital,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Hollywood Democrat who is a former prosecutor, argued. “You allow the worst of society to continue to do incredible harm and damage and injury because they know that their victims won’t say a word and won’t come forward.”

But Sen. Jonathan Martin, who also is a former prosecutor, said the state needs to find out how much it is spending on health care for people who are in the country illegally.

“We’ve got to find out where a large chunk of the state’s budget is going. A third of our budget is health-care costs. We have to know what percentage of that is being caused directly by the federal government,” Martin, R-Fort Myers, said, referring to federal immigration policies.

The plan also would ban local governments from giving money to organizations to create identification cards for undocumented immigrants and would establish that Florida will not recognize driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants in other states.

The bill also would change a human-smuggling law to make it a felony for someone to transport into the state an individual “whom the person knows, or reasonably should know” has entered the country illegally. Critics of the proposal said it would put people at risk of being arrested when they are accompanying family members or friends who are undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, indicated the measure could lead to racial profiling. Torres pointed to testimony from an Orlando-area pastor who opposed the bill, saying it could result in the arrest of people who attend church.

“We’re not talking about criminals. We’re talking about families that are getting away from those countries that rape their daughters, that human trafficking we talked about here. That’s what they’re escaping from. And for the life of me, I can't understand why we go after them,” Torres said.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, argued that the bill was politically motivated to aid DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-10 along party lines to pass the measure.

“This bill wouldn’t have ever come forward if there was a Republican in the White House. Sen. Martin said it’s easy to fix the immigration system.Then why has no administration, even the ‘build-the-wall’ one, managed to do it?” Polsky said, referring to former Republican President Donald Trump. “It’s been decades, and it’s infuriating. The gaslighting, the dehumanization of human beings that is going on in this chamber because of this bill. … You think it might help you politically, but it’s not the right thing to do.”

Democrats also argued immigration laws are the purview of the federal government, not the state.

But Ingoglia, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the measure is intended to force federal officials to address what he called an immigration “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“In the last two years alone, 5 million people have attempted to cross our country illegally at our southern border,” said Ingoglia, adding that “right now there are 660,000 migrants” at the border waiting to be processed by federal officials.

“That is three times the amount the Russians put on the Ukrainian border right before they invaded. So you tell me, is that an invasion or not?” he said.

Speaking to reporters before the vote, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo defended the legislation.

“If you make it easy for undocumented immigrants to come to your state, without having proper documentation, then you are going to attract more and more. That doesn’t make sense,” Passidomo, R-Naples, said. “The bottom line is that the federal government needs to fix it, and I don’t know why they don’t. We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, but they don’t do anything about it. If they would fix it, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

But critics warned the measure would put immigrants and their allies in danger.

“It would make life hard in so many ways for undocumented immigrants but also neighbors,” Benjamin Feliciano, pastor of the Rosa de Sarón Church in Fort Myers, said in a statement earlier this week. “This bill would restrict our ability to follow the tenets of our faith through the call to help others. This bill would literally tear at the fabric of our community, much of which has been rebuilt through neighbors, immigrants and U.S. citizens working side by side.”

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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