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Florida House moves forward with bill on immigration, a DeSantis priority

Two Democratic legislators failed to amend the bill to clarify that unaccompanied minors would not be impacted.
The bill is an important piece of Gov. Ron DeSantis' immigration agenda. The lawmaker sponsoring it says the goal isn't to target children.
The bill is an important piece of Gov. Ron DeSantis' immigration agenda. The lawmaker sponsoring it says the goal isn't to target children. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Feb. 18|Updated Feb. 18

TALLAHASSEE — In recent months, Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed state regulators to crack down on shelters that house unaccompanied minors in Florida and asked the Legislature to bar state contracts with companies that transport migrants, including children, into the state on behalf of the federal government.

But the Republican lawmaker who is sponsoring legislation that is part of DeSantis’ immigration agenda said Thursday that the measure is not intended to impact unaccompanied children or the shelters that care for them as they wait to be reunited with their families or vetted sponsors.

“The intent certainly is not to target children,” said state Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart. “But the thing that I’d like to point out is that even if it does, then we are not saying — because we do not have the ability — to tell a common carrier they cannot transport unaccompanied minors.”

Related: Child immigrants at Tampa Bay shelters caught up in state-federal squabble

Snyder said the bill is merely “sending a message” to companies that take part in a federal immigration program that if they “knowingly and willfully transport them into the state, they cannot do business with Florida or any local municipality.”

“I want to be very clear on something with this bill. As a state, there are certain things we can and cannot do,” Snyder said. “Nothing in this bill prohibits a common carrier from transporting any human being regardless of their immigration status. Quite frankly, I wish we could. But we can’t.”

The remarks came as Democrats raised concerns that the bill defines an “unauthorized alien” as a person who is not authorized under federal law to be employed in the United States, a definition they said is “incredibly broad” and that captures unaccompanied minors.

“We are absolutely tying up unaccompanied minors. They are not authorized to be employed. We all know that,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who also worried the definition would rope in migrants who have been granted temporary protected status or are seeking protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Smith and state Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead, attempted to amend the bill to clarify that unaccompanied minors would not be impacted, as Snyder said his intent is. But the Republican majority in the House State Affairs Committee, where the bill and the amendments were heard on Thursday, rejected their efforts.

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Smith also took issue with the assertion that the bill would not be considered part of a broader effort that would help DeSantis’ administration crack down on shelters that house unaccompanied minors.

“This policy, if passed, in partnership with the governor’s executive order and (the Department of Children and Families’)rulemaking that they have just published, will have the effect of blocking faith-based groups and other organizations from providing shelter to vulnerable children,” Smith said.

In a party-line 15-8 vote, the committee approved the bill without any changes. After the vote, Snyder told the Times/Herald that he is “open to look at and continue the conversation” about clarifying that the bill is not intended to have an impact on unaccompanied children.

The focus on the impact the immigration policy would have on unaccompanied minors comes as Miami faith and business leaders, and some Cubans who came to Florida through Operation Pedro Pan, have criticized the governor’s immigration policies. Other members of the Pedro Pan community have spoken in favor of the governor’s policies.

This week, the tension over the immigration issue reached the airwaves.

The American Business Immigration Coalition Action, a group of business leaders that includes Miami health care billionaire Mike Fernandez, paid for Spanish-language ads that slam DeSantis over a rule issued by the Florida Department of Children and Families that cracks down on organizations that shelter unaccompanied children who come across the border, unless there is an agreement between the state and the federal government. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski joined in on the effort.

While the recent pushback has largely been focused on immigration orders issued by DeSantis’ administration — not the proposed legislation — Snyder fielded questions about how his bill would pair with the governor’s recent actions against shelters that house unaccompanied children. He said it wouldn’t.

“In no way shape or form does this bill impact a nonprofit, a charity or church from providing those services,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said people who were claiming it did were “lied to.”

“If you were told your resettlement group is going to hurt all the work that you guys are doing, quite frankly, you were lied to,” he said.

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