Florida enacts stricter immigration measures
Questions linger over a new law’s enforcement
Under a Florida law that went into effect last month, Orlando resident Salvador Rosas worries he could be convicted of a felony for driving his family across state lines. Rosas, 22, and his two younger brothers were born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents. An anti-trafficking clause in the controversial new measure makes it a third-degree felony for anyone to transport illegal immigrants into the state. Rosas’ mother’s family lives in Chicago, and he wonders when he will be able to see his relatives. “It’s very difficult for a mixed-status family,” he said.
Effective July 1, the new law is sparking fear and confusion among immigrant communities in Florida, while churches and employers are reckoning with what it means for their ministries and businesses. Some advocates worry that misunderstandings about the law could prevent immigrants from seeking medical help or continuing at their jobs. So far, little data exists to corroborate anecdotal reports of the law’s repercussions, and questions remain about how aggressively the measure will be enforced.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in May, arguing that the border crisis forced the state to take action while “the federal government abandons its lawful duties to protect our country.” So far this fiscal year, U.S. Border Patrol says the number of illegal immigrants it has apprehended or otherwise encountered in Florida increased more than 400 percent over fiscal year 2022. More than 770,000 immigrants live and work in Florida illegally. The state has more than 330,000 cases pending in immigration court, the highest number in any U.S. state.
The law’s transportation clause garnered criticism while it was under consideration in the state legislature. Florida pastors protested the religious liberty implications of a rule that originally forbade anyone who “reasonably should know” a person’s legal status from transporting an illegal immigrant anywhere in the state. The pastors argued the clause could shut down their ministries. Lawmakers amended the provision to apply only to those who “knowingly and willfully” transported illegal immigrants into Florida.
Pastors are still wrestling with how to structure their ministry activities around the law. Gabriel Salguero pastors The Gathering Place, an Assemblies of God church in Orlando. He is also the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, a coalition of Hispanic congregations and nonprofits. Salguero said scared church members pepper him with questions: Will they be able to work and provide for their families? Will they be able to go to church?
Some congregants decided to watch church services online while waiting to see how authorities would implement the law. Shortly after the law passed, pastors in Kissimmee and Fort Myers told Salguero several families left their churches.
Concerns about transportation have forced church leaders to rethink regional youth conventions and other conferences that could require attendees to cross state lines, Salguero said. “This is not a political issue for us. For us, this is a pastoral issue,” he said. “I don’t think it was thought through.”
Under the law, healthcare facilities that accept Medicaid must ask patients about their immigration status and submit quarterly reports to the state. Reports include totals of how many hospital and emergency room visits were made by U.S. citizens, illegal immigrants, and patients who declined to answer the question—but not the names of individual patients.
Yareliz Mendez-Zamora, the federal campaign lead for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told me one Nicaraguan woman said she hesitated to take her undocumented niece to the hospital until she had no other choice. Mendez-Zamora said if she were in the woman’s shoes, she’d likely make a similar choice: “If I’m hurt, if I’m at my most vulnerable, I’m not going to go.”
Yanet Obarrio-Sanchez, the director of corporate communications for Memorial Healthcare System, said the network of hospitals already asked about citizenship to better connect their patients with the resources they need. But now, they also ask a follow-up question to determine their status. She told me their first quarterly report is still in process. “But on the clinical side, [the law] changes nothing,” she said.
Obarrio-Sanchez told me she hasn’t heard reports that Memorial Healthcare System is seeing fewer patients due to fears over the law, adding they would need more than anecdotal stories. “We’d like to have the data behind it,” she said.
The Florida legislation requires all public agencies and private businesses with more than 25 employees to submit information about new hires to E-Verify, a program that checks an employee’s I-9 form with government records.
Tim Conlan is the president of Reliant Roofing in Jacksonville, Fla. He said the state rejected the first work crew Reliant submitted to E-Verify after the law went into effect. Now, the company is submitting fewer applications because it is doing more stringent vetting beforehand. About 10 percent of his employees left the state after the law passed, worried about family members who did not have legal documents. But roughly half of them returned once they realized the law only affects new hires. “They were getting bad information,” he said.
The staffing shortage has created a backlog of work. Customers unwilling to wait are turning to smaller companies with fewer than 25 employees who don’t have to use E-Verify. “Our business is probably down 25 percent,” said Conlan. He argued that the new legislation isn’t the best way to tackle the problem. “What we really need is to streamline the immigration process,” he said.
Nationwide, about 50 percent of agricultural laborers are illegal immigrants. Yvette Cruz is the communications coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, an organization with more than 10,000 members, many of whom are of Hispanic descent. “A lot of our members were scared, terrified,” Cruz said. “Some have left the state.”
She told me some employers are submitting information about their current employees to E-Verify, not just new hires. “There has been a lot of confusion,” she said.
The association, along with groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU Foundation of Florida, sued the DeSantis administration in July over the new measure. The lawsuit focuses on the part of the law that makes it a third-degree felony to transport an illegal immigrant into Florida, arguing it is unconstitutional for a state to unilaterally regulate immigration.
Scott Andrew Fulks, an immigration attorney for Deckert Law, said the lawsuit hangs on the doctrine of preemption, the idea that federal immigration law automatically supersedes state law. “So, if any federal law expressly or impliedly regulates an area of law, any state law that attempts to preempt it will be found in violation of the federal law,” he said. Fulks believes the court will uphold Florida’s E-Verify requirements. A 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed Arizona to mandate the use of E-Verify.
But the Arizona attorney general’s office only reported two E-Verify cases in the several years after the law took effect, leading Fulks to wonder how much the Florida law will be strictly enforced. It’s unclear how stringently authorities enforced a similar 2011 crackdown in Alabama.
Florida’s law makes illegal immigrants’ out-of-state driver’s licenses invalid in the state. Miami-Dade County police officers told residents they do not plan on pulling drivers over to require them or their passengers to show their immigration paperwork. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes highway patrol troopers, is required to cite an illegal immigrant for driving with an out-of-state license and keep a list of drivers who have invalid out-of-state licenses.
At a June meeting organized by the Hispanic Ministers Association of South Florida, lawmakers who voted for the measure told immigrant residents not to live in fear. Republican Rep. Rick Roth, who represents part of Palm Beach County, called the law a “more of a political bill than it is policy.” Rep. Alina Garcia, R-Miami-Dade, added, “This bill doesn’t have any teeth.”