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Florida pastors worry about immigration crackdown

An anti-human trafficking measure may get in the way of ministry to migrants

Boat from Cuban immigrants on the shore in Islamorada, Fla., Jan. 4 Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee

Florida pastors worry about immigration crackdown

When missions pastor Jody Ray printed off a copy of Florida Senate Bill 1718, he grew more and more concerned as he read through its 35 pages. Ray’s church, Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville, Fla., hosts citizenship and English as a second language classes for immigrants and refugees and works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to furnish houses for refugees. Ray worried the proposed legislation could shut down some of the church’s work.

Chets Creek Church serves immigrants regardless of their legal status. “We never ask,” said Ray. “It doesn’t matter how they got in front of us … our job is to simply serve them and care for them.”

Two and a half hours away, Gary Shultz Jr. also worried about the bill. Shultz pastors First Baptist Church in the heart of Tallahassee. His church also hosts English as a second language classes twice a week for immigrants and refugees and transports them to church services. “I did some research into it and immediately saw the religious liberty implications,” he said.

An anti-trafficking clause in the bill makes it a third degree felony for residents “who reasonably should know” an immigrant’s status to transport or house an illegal immigrant anywhere within the state. Proponents argue it’s a needed step to combat a record 2.76 million border crossings and the smugglers taking advantage of haphazard federal policies.

Immigration officials have encountered 400 percent more illegal immigrants in South Florida since October 1, 2022, than the same period last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz. Authorities discovered 26 smuggling attempts affecting nearly 600 migrants in the Miami sector during five days in early Janurary As of April 12, Florida had the most cases, 333,723, pending in immigration court, though there is neither state nor federal data on how many illegal immigrants arrived in Florida during the record-breaking influx last year.

Ray and Shultz joined a press call on March 30 hosted by World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table to discuss how Florida’s latest proposal could affect religious liberty.

“For us, this is not a partisan issue. For us, this is a pastoral issue. Many Latino pastors have vans and buses that transport young children to Sunday school,” Gabriel Salguero, the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition said on the call. “There’s religious liberty concerns that it can criminalize a pastor transporting one of his parishioners.”

Dale Schaeffer serves as the Florida district superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene for about 270 churches. On the press call, he argued the bill redefines smuggling. Existing federal anti-smuggling law makes it illegal to assist someone entering the country unlawfully, but distinguishes this from incidental transportation of illegal immigrants.

“Without this particular clarifying phrase, Senate Bill 1718 could very reasonably be interpreted to mean it could be illegal to drive an elderly neighbor to church, at least if I or their driver reasonably suspected that they had not entered the country legally,” he said.

Ray also worries about a provision that would require healthcare facilities to ask about a patient’s immigration status. The bill only directs facilities to report the number of people who registered as undocumented, not their names, but Ray is still concerned the measure will make illegal immigrants think twice before seeking medical care. “This will strike fear in the undocumented community,” he said, adding it only takes one incident in which someone goes to the hospital and reveals their status for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to get involved.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his support for the legislation in a February proposal outlining how his administration will continue to address the border crisis. “With this legislation, Florida is continuing to crack down on the smuggling of illegal aliens, stopping municipalities from issuing ID cards to people here illegally, and ensuring that employers are hiring American citizens or those here legally,” he said in a statement.

DeSantis’ deputy press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, responded to a request for comment with a link to the governor’s news release about the legislation and a video of a Feb. 23 news conference. He also included a grand jury report explaining how the immigration policies of the Biden administration incentivize the trafficking of unaccompanied minors.

State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to WORLD’s request for comment. “SB 1718 is the most comprehensive and strongest, state-led anti-illegal immigrant piece of legislation ever put forth,” he told Florida Politics. “This should be the model for all 50 states going forward to push the federal government into finally doing its job and fixing a crisis they have created.”

State Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, responded to what she called “misinformation” about the bill in a news release last month. “Sen. Ingoglia’s legislation is designed to prevent the use of illegal identification cards in Florida to prevent human trafficking and put a stop to the abuses by unscrupulous individuals who take advantage of the most vulnerable,” she said. She pointed to record-high encounters with illegal border crossers in 2022 and the over $6.75 billion a year generated from human smuggling.

The measure also prohibits local governments from issuing ID cards and does not consider an illegal immigrant’s out-of-state driver’s license to be valid. It penalizes employers who hire unauthorized workers and bars immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from practicing law.

Arizona passed a similar law in 2010. Senate Bill 1070 permitted law enforcement to ask to see immigration papers if they suspected someone of being undocumented and made it a misdemeanor to be caught without those papers

Immigration lawyer Scott Andrew Fulks works with many illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers at Deckert Law in Minneapolis. The majority of his clients crossed the border illegally, turned themselves in, and have been paroled or released into the country to regularly check in with ICE while they wait for their asylum hearings. “They’re all in a process,” Fulks said, “a legal process to be able to show an immigration judge they qualify for asylum.” These people have a different legal status from those who cross the border illegally and continue to evade authorities, he said, noting that SB 1718 doesn’t clearly define who qualifies as an illegal immigrant. “An individual who illegally entered the United States really is not the same class of persons for everyone,” he said.

Fulks agreed the transportation provisions of the bill could have religious liberty implications. “The failure to have the opportunity to be directly personally involved in someone’s life in order to take them to church or a religious organization would be a flagrant violation of the First Amendment,” he said.

The bill is working its way through the committee process and is expected to pass in the legislature. Rep. Kiyan Michael, R-Jacksonville, introduced a similar bill in the Florida House of Representatives earlier last month.

Florida pastors continue to watch how the legislation might affect their work. “Not to say there isn’t a need for some adjustments to how Florida’s dealing with immigration as a whole,” Ray said, “but I don’t think this is the route.”

Schultz hopes lawmakers will make the changes needed to keep ministry activities out of the bill’s jurisdiction. “I’m hopeful that that would be an easy fix,” he said. “I’ve been told there are people working on that.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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