At the Living Grace Church in Polk County, its 100 members are largely from Mexico, Central America, and Puerto Rico.
So when they heard about a state Senate bill that could potentially harm those who hire, house, or transport immigrants without legal status, Carbajal said, his parishioners felt uncomfortable.
“Where’s our religious freedom?” asked Carbajal, the church’s pastor. Many of his parishioners in Mulberry, about 33 miles east of Tampa, provide transportation to newcomers and community members.
“Our work as pastors and members of a church is focused on a spiritual need and humanitarian commitment, and certainly not based on a person’s legal status,” Carbajal said. “We are against this. ... It restricts our pastoral work. And we cannot work in fear.”
The bill, SB1718, sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would expose Floridians to third-degree felony charges for transporting or harboring someone without permanent legal status, and it would invalidate driver’s licenses issued by other states to such immigrants. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was raised Catholic, supports the measure.
If the law passes, employers can risk penalties if an immigrant without legal status is discovered working for them. The bill will also require hospitals to collect patient immigration information on admission and registration forms and prohibit local governments from issuing identification documents.
Ingoglia has said that his proposal is a response to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
“Anyone who comes out against this bill is pro-illegal immigration and pro-open borders,” he told The Floridian. “What this bill does, it’s a comprehensive, state-led anti-immigration bill that, quite frankly, should be the gold standard for other states.”
Christie Arnold, policy expert for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the legislation would be harmful to families, citizens and those with mixed immigration status “who suddenly cannot bring a friend, a neighbor or a loved one to church, the grocery store or the doctor without risking imprisonment.”
“It essentially criminalizes the Christian call to charity and service, to love our neighbor and to serve the least of our brothers and sisters,” Arnold said to the Tampa Bay Times. “Its detrimental effects to various sectors of the economy, such as construction and agriculture, would be far-reaching.”
More than 775,000 immigrants without permanent legal status live in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center. In the U.S., Catholics remain the largest religious group among Latinos, according to a new analysis from Pew. As of 2022, 43% of Hispanic adults identified as Catholic; 15% as Evangelical Protestants; and 30% had no religious affiliation.
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The arrival of new immigrants represents a challenge not only for government agencies but also nonprofit organizations, churches, community groups and even public schools. But local advocates and community leaders said this is not a reason to put people at risk of criminal prosecution.
“We recognize that current immigration policies and systems are broken and in need of comprehensive reform,” Bishop Gregory Parkes, who oversees more than 450,000 Catholics in the St. Petersburg Diocese, told the Times in a statement.
“However, the proposed SB1718 is an inadequate response to the reality that many of our immigrant brothers and sisters are facing today and would only serve to force them into the shadows of society. We can do better.”
In a March 14 letter sent to Ingoglia on behalf of the conference, Arnold said the proposed bill unfairly targets the immigrant community in Florida as well as those who help them. The conference advocates about policy matters on behalf of the Catholic Church.
“While supporters of the bill are rightly concerned about inaction on immigration policy at the federal level, the bill creates great harm by prohibiting activities that benefit society and vulnerable members of our communities,” Arnold said.
Gabriel Salguero, president and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said the bill criminalizes basic elements of church ministry and limits their capabilities.
“It is unfortunate because the consequences will be very negative for immigrant families and for the pastors who serve precisely these communities,” Salguero said.
Immigration and political decisions made in Tallahassee, Salguero said, should not affect the work of the churches and their members, including volunteers who could face criminal prosecution just for helping someone without legal status.
“I think it will have negative effects on our pastoral mission,” Salguero said. “We are in favor of the family and religious freedom.”
Edgar Diaz, Hispanic ministries director at Florida District Church of the Nazarene, said the proposal goes against the humanitarian commitment of their churches and families. They help hundreds of immigrants and their families every year.
“I’m a person who follows the law,” he said. “But I believe that all this goes against what was established by God.”