TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate late Thursday approved a measure aimed at boosting immigration enforcement that critics maintain could have far-reaching implications for migrants in the state, such as people seeking asylum from Communist regimes and children awaiting reunification with their families.
The proposal, among the 2022 legislative session’s most contentious issues, is a top priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. It targets transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state and would expand a 2019 law that sought to ban so-called “sanctuary cities.”
The bill coincides with an effort by the DeSantis administration to shutter shelters that provide housing and other services to unaccompanied children whose immigration or refugee status is being processed after they enter the country. The children are placed in the shelters by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Florida shelters served about 3,400 unaccompanied minors last year, according to the state Department of Children and Families.
While federal laws generally govern immigration policies, Senate bill sponsor Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said during debate Thursday night that the legislation (SB 1808) is designed to send a message to President Joe Biden and to Congress to take action on immigration.
But Democrats argued that so-called “ghost flights” targeted by Republicans throughout the country are a political fiction. Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have used policies that authorize the transportation of migrants crossing the country’s southern border to other states while their immigration or refugee status is being processed. Many of the migrants are unaccompanied children.
“It’s not happening. It’s all just a lie that we are legislating here today,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said. “This is a bogeyman bill that does nothing because we cannot usurp the federal government, and every last one of you in this room know it. … It is policies like this that we are about to pass here tonight … that puts people in danger, people who have come here to this country to seek a better life. But more importantly, these are human beings, human beings who are used as political pawns.”
The Senate took up the immigration proposal after an hours-long, emotionally wrought discussion that resulted in the passage of a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, chastised his Republican colleagues for supporting the immigration plan.
“What we’re doing, very simply, here is singling out people that we don’t like and that are not invited, the overwhelming majority of whom are decent, good human beings. And we care about life here. Irony is thick. Seriously guys?” he said.
Other Democrats argued that the bill poses a threat to thousands of migrants in the state whose temporary visas have expired or whose applications for asylum already are in the pipeline.
“A person may be lawfully admitted to the United States and be in lawful status but still be an unauthorized alien for purposes of the federal statute,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, who grew up in Colombia, said, adding that the bill would put “many categories of immigrants, including unaccompanied children, trafficking victims and travelers with tourist visas” in danger of being deported.
But Bean argued that the bill would send a message to the federal government and Congress that “enough is enough.”
“The bill was written to be made as simple as we can. We used the federal definition of lawful or unlawful, so whatever example that anybody can come up with of a certain case, it comes down to, are they here lawful, or are they here unlawfully?” he said before the Senate’s 24-15 vote along party lines about 11 p.m. Thursday. ”I don’t know if it can be more simple.”
For years, Republicans — including DeSantis — have made immigration control a cornerstone of their political agendas.
The governor, widely seen as a potential contender for president in 2024, boasted about the legislation during an appearance last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
“We are in the process of getting money in the Legislature so that if Biden is dumping illegal aliens into Florida from the southern border I’m rerouting them to Delaware. We’ll do some in D.C. and Hollywood as well,” DeSantis said, calling out the president’s home state and cities dominated by Democrats.
But the issue has become a wedge among Hispanics and faith groups, many of which operate shelters.
In a letter to legislative leaders this week, organizations representing Florida’s Venezuelan-American community decried the bill, arguing that it would put thousands of workers at risk of deportation.
“The governor’s anti-immigrant bill is a direct attack on Florida’s Venezuelan community. Many of us with Temporary Protected Status have work permits delayed due to long backlogs at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. As written, this legislation would define us as ‘unauthorized aliens’ because our applications for work permits are delayed through no fault of our own,” the letter said.
Mike Fernandez, a billionaire health-care executive from Miami who co-founded the American Business Immigration Coalition, also blasted the proposal.
“The governor’s shameful bill was 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,” Fernandez, whose group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last month on Spanish radio ads decrying the legislation and the governor’s policies, said in a prepared statement. “We’ve seen too many times in the Americas and now in Europe when tyrants engage in bullying and political theatre, and innocent children, families and lives pay the price of their cruelty.”