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Florida immigration debate renews with bill that targets companies transporting migrants

Much of the public testimony focused on the potential ramifications the proposed legislation would have on migrant children.
Migrants from Central America and Mexico await the outcome of their U.S. immigration court cases in a tent encampment near the Gateway International Bridge at the U.S.- Mexico border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on Oct. 1, 2019.
Migrants from Central America and Mexico await the outcome of their U.S. immigration court cases in a tent encampment near the Gateway International Bridge at the U.S.- Mexico border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on Oct. 1, 2019. [ GARY CORONADO | Los Angeles Times ]
Published Jan. 25|Updated Jan. 25

TALLAHASSEE — Republicans in a Florida Senate committee on Monday pushed through a bill that would bar the state from doing business with companies that transport undocumented migrants into the state, giving a nod to a controversial but key part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election-year agenda.

The measure, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, would also expand the scope of a 2019 law that barred so-called sanctuary cities in the state, less than four months after a federal judge in Miami deemed portions of the law unconstitutional and tinged with “discriminatory motives.”

It would also mandate Florida sheriffs to enroll in a partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that trains and authorizes county-level officers to perform limited functions of federal immigration authorities.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, argued the measure is needed to end a “human smuggling operation” perpetuated by President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, echoing the same arguments that DeSantis, who is seeking re-election, has repeatedly made in press conferences and conservative media outlets, like Fox News.

“We want to end this practice,” said Bean, who described flights that have long been chartered by the federal government to relocate asylum seekers and other migrants to the state as “mystery flights” that come “in the middle of the night.”

Democrats argued the bill is not needed, that it would be deemed unconstitutional like portions of the 2019 law were, and said that it was “wrong on a human level.” They asked, without receiving answers, how private transportation companies would know the immigration status of the passengers they are carrying on behalf of the federal government.

Democrats also pressed Bean on whether his bill would impact children, and make it harder for the federal government to reunite unaccompanied minors with their relatives or vetted sponsors in Florida.

“If they are an illegal citizen, no matter how old they are, if common carriers are participating in this practice, then yes, that common carrier would then be prohibited, should this bill pass, from doing business with the state of Florida,” Bean said.

Echoes of Operation Peter Pan

Much of the public testimony during the committee hearing focused on the potential ramifications the proposed legislation would have on migrant children.

Speakers read the testimonies of Cuban migrants, including women in their 70s who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors during Operation Peter Pan, when parents sent thousands of school-aged children from Cuba to the United States in the early 1960s.

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“I respectfully ask this committee ... Are any of you parents? For those of you who are … Put yourselves in that situation and think of your own kids,” said Florida Immigrant Coalition spokesperson Melissa Taveras on behalf of Miami resident Alicia Peláez, a 74-year-old Cuban refugee brought by nuns in the ‘60s to the United States. “These parents sending their children to the United States are doing so out of desperation and fear for their children’s lives.”

The testimony and the bill’s consideration comes a month after the DeSantis administration directed Florida state regulators to stop issuing or renewing the licenses of facilities that contract with the federal government to house migrant children and teenagers who are waiting to be reunited with their families or vetted sponsors.

“Under this proposed piece of legislation, and the governor’s recent executive [action], the nuns supporting these children would have been shut down by the state, and any forms of transportation they used would have been penalized,” Taveras argued.

Yareliz Mendez-Zamora, the U.S.-born daughter of undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants who lives in Pembroke Pines, said that Florida’s immigrants “are the people who keep us safe, clean our streets, pick our strawberries, and sometimes even clean your home like my mother does.”

Continued hard-line policies

The proposed legislation marks the third time that DeSantis has pushed for hard-line immigration policies during his four-year term in office, but it is the first in which he is openly feuding with the administration that oversees federal immigration enforcement.

When President Donald Trump was in office, DeSantis said the measures were meant to ensure all local and state agencies complied with the Republican president’s immigration laws. Now, he says legislation is needed to counteract Biden’s “disastrous” immigration policies.

DeSantis’ office claims the Biden administration has had “zero communication with state or local officials” about flights that bring migrants into the state, unlike the Trump administration.

Bean echoed that sentiment during Monday’s hearing, stating that the federal government “does not inform” Florida officials “where or when” the flights will happen.

The Republican senator was unable to answer multiple questions colleagues posed, including whether there were any detention facilities that house undocumented immigrants in Florida. There are at least four, according to ICE’s website.

He acknowledged he does not “have the full knowledge of where (the migrants) are coming from and where they’re going” once they make it to Florida. And when asked if he could offer examples of carriers who would be affected by the law, Bean said that he “did not have a list because we don’t know who is participating.”

DeSantis claimed he has a list of the carriers who are engaging in this activity during a December 2021 press conference. However, his office has not provided that list and has not said why it has not provided it to the Legislature as it considers the proposed legislation.

Under the bill, government entities would be barred from contracting with individuals or companies that are “willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting an unauthorized alien into the State of Florida knowing that the unauthorized alien entered into or remains in the United States in violation of law.”

When asked if such a program being in place without congressional approval was unprecedented, Bean said it was. But Republican Senator Rick Scott told the Miami Herald last November that he was not given information, either, on migrants relocated to Florida by the federal government during his eight years in office.

“Remember the Syrian refugees? I was very vocal with the fact that if you’re going to send somebody to my state, I was a sitting governor, you should talk to me, you should ask me my opinion, you should give me all the vetting information,” Scott said.

More local immigration enforcement?

Under the proposal, all Florida sheriffs would be required to sign an agreement by January 2023 that would allow county-level officers to perform the certain functions of federal immigration authorities, as part of the federal program known as the 287(g) program.

The number of jurisdictions that have implemented the program in Florida have soared under the DeSantis administration. Currently, 48 of 67 Florida sheriffs are taking part in the program, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties, which have some of the largest immigrant populations in the state, are among the 19 that have yet to participate in the program but would be required to do so, under the proposed bill.

The bill would not allow local authorities to enact policies and procedures that would prohibit them from sharing information with state agencies about the immigration status of people in their custody.

An identical bill has been filed by state Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, in the Florida House. That bill has yet to be heard in committee.

“While much of it is simply rehashed pieces of the anti-sanctuary bill, it is sad that Republican legislators are doubling down on Gov. DeSantis’ efforts to use children as pawns to further his xenophobic agenda,” said Anne Janet Hernandez Anderson, a senior supervising attorney with the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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