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Drugs, guns, crime: Ron DeSantis’ case for immigration bills draws fire

Research shows immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens, but DeSantis still made the case that they pose a public safety threat.

Nearly a year since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came into office, it’s no surprise that he’s urging state lawmakers to make a crackdown on hiring undocumented workers a top priority in January’s legislative session.

One of DeSantis’ most repeated campaign promises last year was that he would ensure businesses would be required to check the immigration status of new hires via an online system called “e-Verify.” Support for the program has become established doctrine for the GOP.

Yet during a Monday news conference, DeSantis took a hard-right turn, citing examples of violence and crime committed by undocumented immigrants as rationale for the program, an argument that immigration advocates likened to the divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

In one instance, DeSantis detailed the thousands of pounds of narcotics and hundreds of guns seized last year by Homeland Security Investigations, which breaks up cross-border crimes and gang activity. He cited a specific federal investigation in Jacksonville that busted fraudulent companies working to bring in undocumented workers, saying: “When you have those types of criminal enterprises, you end up seeing money laundering, fraud, identity theft — all of that goes to what we’re talking about here.”

“The law is the law and you either comply with it or you don’t," DeSantis added.

Advocates were taken aback by DeSantis’ comparison of undocumented workers with criminal kingpins, saying that the conflation of the two was both wrong and dangerous.

“If Gov. DeSantis truly cared about public safety, he would enact policies that build trust between law enforcement and all communities ... rather than perpetuating the same hateful rhetoric and practices we have seen from the Trump Administration, which has led to increased hate crimes,” said Melissa Taveras, spokeswoman for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

Those trafficking in drugs and guns “will not be penalized by e-Verify because they’re not the ones cleaning hotel rooms at Disney or picking strawberries in Plant City, Florida,” said Rebecca Shi, the executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, a group of business leaders which is active in seven states.

“These are two completely different things,” she said.

Many studies have shown that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S.-born citizens, and additional research has suggested that trend applies to undocumented immigrants.

But such evidence wasn’t cited during Monday’s news conference, which DeSantis held in the deep red Central Florida retirement community of The Villages. Instead, as he voiced support for bills that would require employers to use e-Verify, DeSantis yielded the lectern to two so-called “Angel Families,” whose loved ones were killed by undocumented immigrants.

Trump has hosted White House events in the past for Angel Families to promote a build-the-wall premise supported more by outlier anecdotes than data.

“Angel Parents do not want anyone else to share in our tragedy,” said Vickie Lyon, who said her daughter was killed in a drunk driving accident in which the offender was undocumented. “Gov. DeSantis is fighting to save all of our families from this grief.”

In addition to public safety, DeSantis and the lawmakers who joined him in The Villages also said e-Verify will benefit Florida economically, potentially raising the wages of blue-collar workers who will no longer have to compete with “cheap, illegal, foreign labor.”

“This will be portrayed as being anti-immigrant, and it is absolutely not. It is about putting Americans first, it is about putting Floridians first,” said Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, who is expected to file the House version of the bill.

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, is sponsoring it in the Senate, making it the same pair of lawmakers who sponsored this year’s ban of so-called “sanctuary cities.” Still, Republican Senate President Bill Galvano has been cautious about e-Verify, saying last month its passage is “not guaranteed.”

In the past, e-Verify proposals have been staunchly opposed by Florida’s biggest industries, including tourism and agriculture, as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

Shi, the business coalition leader, said the Legislature should instead pass a law to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. Sen. David Simmons, the Republican president pro tempore of the Florida Senate, has said he intends to file such a bill.

“The smarter measure is actually to bring people out of the shadows and make them get tested, licensed and insured,” Shi said. “Then dedicate your resources to root out the truly bad guys.”

Reporting by the News Service of Florida was included in this story.