Florida Senate passes immigration bill with Biden in mind

The proposal is largely designed to send a message to President Joe Biden that Florida is taking a stand against the immigration “crisis.”
Members of the Florida Senate fill the chamber, March 12, 2020.
Members of the Florida Senate fill the chamber, March 12, 2020. [ Times (2020) ]
Published March 4, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans are poised to bar the state from doing business with companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state, a move that Democrats and faith leaders across the state worry will complicate the resettlement of unaccompanied minors who come to Florida to be reunified with their families.

The proposal — approved by the Senate on Thursday along party lines — seeks to cramp the flow of undocumented immigrants into the state by targeting companies that transport people who are “unlawfully” in the country into Florida. Unaccompanied migrant children, who under federal immigration law have “no lawful immigration status,” would be included, according to immigration attorneys.

“We are making decisions in a state that are going to affect a lot of people, including unaccompanied children,” said Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. “We should not be passing a bill that is going to create more division, more hate and create two types of children, those who are accepted and those who are not.”

Republican lawmakers tried to quell concerns that the proposal would have an impact on children by narrowing the definition of who would be considered an “unauthorized alien” under state law. The change came after the issue drew criticism from Miami faith leaders and created division among Cubans who came to Florida through Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican sponsoring the bill, admitted he had a “really hard time defending the bill” when he first presented it at the start of the 60-day legislative session.

“It had a very poor definition of who was here lawfully and who the bill applied to,” he told senators on Wednesday night. “So, we went back to the drawing board and pulled out a new definition.”

Now, he said Thursday, the bill is “simple.”

“We used the federal definition of lawful and unlawful. So whatever example that anybody can come up with, it comes down to: Are they here lawfully or are they here unlawfully?” Bean said.

The new definition would still apply to unaccompanied minors, immigration attorneys say. What remains unclear is whether any company would stop transporting them into Florida.

It is not known how many state or local government agencies in Florida have existing contracts with companies that have agreements with the federal government, or whether they would end their contracts with the federal government out of fear of losing a state contract.

The bill does not prohibit companies from transporting undocumented immigrants into Florida, said state Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the bill in the House.

“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 last month. “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.”

Yet Bean told senators on Thursday night that the bill is attempting to do something.

“Florida right now is challenged by soaring numbers of unlawful aliens and we have to do something,” he said.

Related: Florida House moves forward with immigration bill, a DeSantis priority

Sending a message to the White House

In practice, the proposal is largely designed to send a message to Biden that Florida is taking a stand against the “crisis” Republicans say his immigration policies have created at the southern border.

“Nobody wants to be here,” Bean said. “I wish that we didn’t have to do the bill. I wish the federal government would step up to the plate and protect our border. That is why we are here. To send a message, and we are hoping the message will be delivered should we pass this bill.”

If approved, the proposal would bar the state from doing business with any company, person or firm that transports a person into Florida “knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien,” unless they are doing so to help with deportations or sending them to a federal immigration detention facility.

Senate Democrats slammed Republicans in the chamber for pushing a bill solely for political reasons. They criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis for misleading the public about so-called “secret” flights to push for legislation on Fox News in an election year.

Related: DeSantis wants $8 million to remove 'unauthorized aliens' from Florida

DeSantis has talked about those flights on Fox News prime-time shows repeatedly. Before the Legislature drafted the measure, DeSantis went on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show last November to vow that Florida would “fight back against contractors” that help the federal government transport migrants into the state.

“It’s something that was said on Fox News one night and someone had to draft something that you guys now gotta swallow,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, characterized the Republican effort as a “boogeyman bill that does nothing.”

Some Republican senators defended the proposal by saying it is about “transparency” and “law and order.”

The bill, for example, 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.

“What this bill does is asking the federal government for transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami.

Trying to fix sanctuary cities law

The proposed legislation would also expand the scope of a 2019 law that barred sanctuary cities in the state, after a federal judge in Miami ruled portions of the law were unconstitutional and “discriminatory.”

Related: Federal judge blocks Florida law banning sanctuary cities

“We know that a federal court ruled that bill unconstitutional because of its discriminatory motives that rely on an immigrant threat narrative. I don’t know why we are addressing something here that has already been ruled unconstitutional,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach.

All Florida law enforcement agencies operating county detention facilities would need to enroll in a federal immigration program, known as 27(g), which trains and authorizes county-level officers to perform limited functions of federal immigration authorities.

In the hours leading up to the Senate vote, immigration advocates gathered near a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Plantation to demand the closure of Glades County Detention Center, which has been the target of complaints from immigration advocates and watchdog groups.

They advocated to “free them all” and “defund hate.” When asked about Republican lawmakers’ proposals in the Legislature, some said they were not surprised by it and that it continued “feeding into this narrative of further demonizing the act of migration into the U.S.”

“To continue and add on and build this relationship between ICE and law enforcement is outrageous,” said Guadalupe de la Cruz, the director of the American Friends Service Committee in Florida. “We don’t want that type of relationship to be established and reinforced and backed up by Florida.”

Paula Muñoz, director of campaigns of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said her organization is “very disappointed” with the outcome of the legislation in Tallahassee.

“We know it’s a law that is going to hurt many immigrant communities,” she said. “It’s attacking children, asylum seekers. It’s a law we do not need, and we have seen these kinds of laws create fear and insecurity in immigrants and it should not be the focus or priority of the governor or of legislators who are pushing for it.”

Protests and press conferences

Immigration advocacy groups have mobilized scores of protesters to Tallahassee, where they have prayed for DeSantis and legislators to change their minds, and held press conferences to raise awareness of the impact the governor’s immigration platform would have on their services.

Faith leaders are not just worried about the bill. They are also monitoring a controversial rule from DeSantis’ administration that directs state child care regulators to deny licenses to shelters, foster agencies and foster homes that care for unaccompanied migrant children on behalf of the federal government, unless Florida reaches a resettlement agreement with the feds.

The rule would require service providers to conduct twice-a-year welfare checks on children they place with sponsors until they reach the age of 18. The required in-person visits to comply with the state rule could rack up millions of dollars in additional costs, according to a cost analysis from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Related: Proposed Florida rules could be costly for agencies that care for immigrant children

“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,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, in debate last month.

Miami health care executive Mike Fernandez, co-chairperson of the pro-immigration business group behind a Spanish-language radio campaign critical of DeSantis’ immigration policies, said the bill was “shameful” and “crafted for political reasons.”

“It hurts employers already facing extreme shortages of workers and innocent children cared for by faith institutions like the Archdiocese of Miami,” he told the Miami Herald in a statement.

Ahead of the Senate vote, Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters that it is now up to the House to see what it does with the measure.

“We’ll see if they take it up,” Simpson said.

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