Arrest of driver under Florida immigration law heightens Mexico’s tensions with DeSantis

Mexican diplomatic officials in Florida are ramping up efforts to defend Mexicans accused of violating the new law.
Florida Highway Patrol on Aug. 21, 2023, initiated a traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of Raquel López Aguilar, a Mexican national, on charges of transporting immigrants into Florida who are in the country illegally.
Florida Highway Patrol on Aug. 21, 2023, initiated a traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of Raquel López Aguilar, a Mexican national, on charges of transporting immigrants into Florida who are in the country illegally. [ courtesy the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles ]
Published Sept. 20|Updated Sept. 20

The arrest of a Mexican national accused of transporting migrants into the state who are in the country illegally is aggravating relations between Florida and Mexico, whose president and diplomats accuse Gov. Ron DeSantis of being anti-immigrant.

The criminal case against Raquel López Aguilar — a father of two from the state of Chiapas who is in the country illegally, living in Tampa and working as a roofer — is the first case in which a Mexican national has been charged under a new Florida law targeting people who drive migrants into the state who are in the country illegally.

At the direction of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexican diplomatic officials in Florida are ramping up efforts to defend Mexicans accused of violating DeSantis’ new law, including López Aguilar.

“The Mexican government is sending us resources to pay for this case,” said the Mexican consul in Orlando, Juan Sabines, in an interview Wednesday with the Times/Herald while he drove to visit López Aguilar at a jail in Hernando County.

Sabines called the state’s case against López Aguilar, 41, “complete injustice,” and vital to future cases prosecuted under the state law because it will set the legal precedent. Sabines said he has told López Aguilar that “while you might be a victim today, you could be a hero.”

“And he is willing,” Sabines said. “He is a brave man. Obviously, being in jail is uncomfortable, but he is in the best disposition to keep fighting.”

The Mexican government has accused DeSantis of engineering the law for political gain as he runs for president. Sabines said that his office has repeatedly sought dialogue with DeSantis and his administration about the law. They’ve sent formal letters as well as messages through intermediaries. But there has been no response so far.

The silence, Sabines said, has signified a deteriorating relationship between Florida and Mexico, an important economic partner to the state. The Mexican government has had close relationships with other Florida Republican governors, like Rick Scott and Jeb Bush, said the consul. But things have changed.

Now, Sabines said, “there is no interest.”

Driving to Tampa leads to felony charges

López Aguilar is accused of violating a state provision that makes it a human smuggling third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport immigrants into the state who are in the country illegally, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

He faces four felony counts and a misdemeanor for driving without a valid license, and is scheduled to be arraigned in Brooksville on Thursday.

The law says that a person can’t transport into Florida “an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably knows, has entered the United States in violation of the law and has not been inspected by the federal government since his or her unlawful entry.”

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López Aguilar was arrested Aug. 21 after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled him over because the van he was driving had window tints “obviously darker” than the legal limit and large cracks on the windshield, the report says. Federal Border Patrol agents also responded to the scene.

López Aguilar and all six of the van’s passengers had “entered the United States illegally,” according to the report. The adults provided Mexican IDs, and a 7-year-old was identified by his full name and birthday. Aguilar and a passenger had been previously deported, the report states.

“Mr. López Aguilar advised he knew some occupants entered the United States illegally and assumed the others did as well,” reads the police report. It also noted that López Aguilar had several receipts for money transfers in his pockets, evidence, the state determined, he had traveled from Georgia.

Sabines, however, says there is no proof López Aguilar was the driver when he crossed the Georgia state line into Florida, which he says the state would need to prove.

“At the time that they crossed [state lines], Raquel was not driving,” Sabines said. ‘We want to see what proof the state has because the passengers and Raquel have been clear about that.”

Because of that, Sabines said. “He is innocent before this law.”

Mark Arias, an Orlando-based attorney, is representing Aguilar through a Mexican government program known as the External Legal Assistance Program, or PALE, which offers legal help to Mexican nationals in the United States. The program was created in 2000 “in order to respond to the community’s need for legal services” and had processed nearly 92,000 cases as of June 2022.

Arias told the Herald that Florida “was stepping over the line” because the federal government oversees immigration policy, not individual states.

“I don’t believe they will be able to prove a violation” under Florida’s immigration law, Arias said.

‘The breadwinner’

López Aguilar came to work in the United States six months ago, leaving his wife and two children in his home state of Chiapas. He is from the municipality of Copainala, where the majority of the population lives in poverty, according to Mexican government data.

Sabines called López Aguilar an honest man who came to Florida to earn a living. He lived with colleagues in Tampa and worked for a Georgia-based construction company, frequently traveling between states. He was the breadwinner of the family, Sabines said.

He confirmed to the Miami Herald that the vehicle, a 1997 van registered in Georgia and processed as evidence, belonged to a construction firm there. Public records from the neighboring state show the van’s owner also has a roofing company registered to the same address as the vehicle.

Ongoing litigation

In July, the Farmworker Association of Florida, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups, sued the state over the transportation provision of the new law.

Plaintiffs argue that the law causes extreme harm to people who regularly travel between Florida and surrounding states, including seasonal agricultural workers, faith leaders and service providers who arrange transportation for people with legal and medical appointments in Florida.

They also say the law is an overreach of Florida’s legal powers and that the language is convoluted and vague because it doesn’t explain how federal government “inspection” of immigrants is defined by the statute.

On Sept. 15, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said plaintiffs had “misread” the law and lacked legal standing to bring the case in front of a judge.

“Visa holders, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, and aliens with pending applications for asylum or removal proceedings have all been ‘inspected’ because they have notified the federal government of their presence, and the federal government can decide whether to take immediate action,” said the document.

Political tensions

As DeSantis runs for president, he has made immigration a cornerstone of his campaign.

DeSantis has promised to authorize troops to use deadly force against cartel members along the border with Mexico, and said he’d be open to using missiles against Mexico. The governor has also vowed to end birthright citizenship —though he has not outlined how — and promised to finish building a wall between the U.S. and its southern neighbor.

Mexico is Florida’s sixth largest foreign trading partner with nearly $7.4 billion in two-way commerce in 2022, according to a report from Enterprise Florida.

“Mexico is an important business partner to Florida. We have a lot of issues in common, a lot of tourism, a lot of commerce, and a great relationship” Sabines said. “So it is concerning that there is no interest [from Florida] in treating their business partner well.”

DeSantis has said Florida’s immigration laws are meant to disincentivize migrants who enter the country illegally from coming to Florida, even as civil rights activists, immigrant advocates and business owners say that worsens labor shortages in Florida.

Mexican president blasts DeSantis

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department has said that Florida’s immigration law “will affect the human rights of thousands of people, Mexican girls and boys, exacerbating hostile situations that could result in hate crimes against the migrant community.”

López Obrador has repeatedly blasted DeSantis’ immigration policies and the new immigration law in his daily morning news conferences.

In July, for example, the Mexican president broadcast a mash-up version of “América” from Mexican norteño band Los Tigres del Norte featuring “Latinoamérica,” a song from Puerto Rican duo Calle 13. The song highlights themes about regional solidarity and U.S. dominance and intervention in the region.

As the song came to an end, López Obrador solemnly turned to reporters and quoted a line from Calle 13: “El que no quiere a su patria no quiere a su madre.” (He who does not love his country does not love his mother.)

His statement highlighted his opposition to DeSantis and Florida’s new immigration law, a policy López Obrador said was designed to boost the Republican governor’s presidential campaign.

“Not a single vote for DeSantis. … Not a single vote for those who disdain migrants,” the president said. “If the United States is a great nation, it has been so because of migrants. And he’s for the wall and the mistreatment of migrants.”