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Florida tightens rules for illegal immigrants

The Sunshine State conceded to ministry leaders’ concerns

Law enforcement officials tend to a sailboat carrying migrants near Virginia Key on January 12. Getty Images/Photo by Joe Raedle

Florida tightens rules for illegal immigrants

Missions pastor Jody Ray worried last month that a Florida immigration bill would restrict his ministry to nearby residents, many of whom are illegal immigrants. An anti-trafficking clause made it a third-degree felony for Floridians to transport or house an illegal immigrant anywhere within the state if they “reasonably should know” an immigrant’s status. He feared the clause would shut down his ministry at Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville where volunteers serve immigrants regardless of legal status, often transporting them to church or English classes.

Ray and other Florida ministry leaders spoke out about their religious liberty concerns with the bill. He thinks that the response from church leaders motivated legislators’ final adjustments of the bill before they passed it last week.

In mid-April, state Senate President Kathleen Passidomo told reporters that lawmakers had changed the final version of the measure to apply only to those transporting illegal immigrants into the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it on May 10, giving the state some of the strictest laws against illegal immigration in the nation.

Ray and others can move forward with their ministry plans. While many pastors breathed a sigh of relief after the change, others are still raising concerns about the law’s healthcare and employment provisions.

Illegal immigration has spiked in South Florida in recent months. The state currently has the most cases pending in immigration court, even beating out Texas. From October 2022 to January 2023, officials encountered 400 percent more illegal immigrants since that same period last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz.

Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys temporarily closed earlier this year when 300 immigrants arrived on its shores over a couple of days. Others landed on remote islands. Local law enforcement partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue the stranded immigrants.

DeSantis called last week’s bill some of the “most ambitious” legislation addressing illegal immigration. “In Florida, we will not stand idly by while the federal government abandons its lawful duties to protect our country,” he said in a statement.

Under the law, individuals who smuggle an illegal minor or five or more illegal immigrants at one time will be charged with a second-degree felony accompanied by a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison. Individuals with previous human smuggling convictions who are caught transporting any illegal immigrants will also be charged. The industry generates over $6.75 billion every year, said state Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, responding to what she called “misinformation” about the bill in a news release in March. Smugglers often charge exorbitant fees and then abandon immigrants at sea to avoid law enforcement or lock them in tractor trailers and train cars. Earlier this year in Texas, at least three illegal immigrants died after spending hours in train cars.

Matthew Soerens, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, celebrated the changes. “Evangelical and Catholic and other religious groups’ advocacy seems to have had a very significant impact in that the bill was amended at the last minute before it passed in a positive way,” he said. Soerens noted that the new guidelines still have the potential to hinder ministry activities that involve transporting immigrants out of state.

The bill’s hospital provisions more deeply concern Soerens and other humanitarian leaders. Hospitals that accept Medicaid must now keep track of their patients’ immigration status and submit quarterly reports to the state. Though the law only directs hospitals to report the number of illegal immigrants using their services, not their names, Soerens said this provision could still heighten immigrants’ fears. “People who are in an emergency situation where lives are on the line will be afraid to go to the hospital,” he said.

Illegal immigrants who hold out-of-state driver’s licenses can no longer legally operate a vehicle in Florida. Local governments or nongovernmental organizations cannot issue them identification cards. The law also allocates $12 million for relocating immigrants to sanctuary cities.

Federal penalties for hiring illegal immigrants often aren’t enforced, a reality that DeSantis has said incentivizes illegal immigration. About 50 percent of U.S. agricultural laborers are illegal immigrants. A recent The New York Times investigation revealed that many unaccompanied children sent across the border illegally ended up working long hours in factories across the United States.

The Florida legislation requires all public agencies, and private employers with more than 25 employees, to confirm their employees’ legal status using E-Verify, a program that checks information from an employee’s I-9 form with government records. Employers who fail to do so risk a $1,000 fine per day and could lose state licensure if they knowingly hire an illegal immigrant.

Agricultural employees are calling the Farm Workers Association of Florida offices, Communications Coordinator Yvette Cruz told NBC 6. “They are scared, they are asking about next steps, what to do, should they leave,” she said.

Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, said the law’s strict requirements could disrupt farming, hospitality, construction, and other industries that depend heavily on immigrant labor. She said it points to a need for larger reforms. “We don’t have the workers and we don’t have a solution from Congress to allow us to document these workers,” she noted.

World Relief’s Soerens said having a functional employment authorization system “makes sense,” but only “when tied with an adequate number of visas.” But that won’t happen unless lawmakers work across the aisle to hammer out immigration solutions. On May 11, U.S. House Republicans passed the Secure the Border Act of 2023. The act is expected to die on arrival in the U.S. Senate, and President Joe Biden has already pledged to veto the legislation.

“It’s more messaging on one side or the other,” said Soerens. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of good faith conversation for legislation that can actually become law and change the situation.”

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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