Rights advocates in Florida are warning that several anti-immigration measures will tear at "the fabric" of the state and risk turning family members against one another as the state GOP seeks to secure votes for Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 presidential election by attacking immigrants across the state.
DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president next year, is pushing the Republican-controlled state Legislature to pass Senate Bill 1718 and House Bill 1617, which would threaten Florida residents with criminal charges if they provide undocumented immigrants with shelter, work, or transportation and would require publicly funded schools and hospitals to participate in the GOP's anti-immigration crackdown.
In a state where more than 1 in 5 residents are immigrants and the healthcare, tourism, and agricultural sectors rely heavily on employees who came to the U.S. from other countries, Florida Immigrant Coalition executive director Tessa Petit said last month the legislation "has the potential to make felons out of every single Floridian."
"From the soccer mom taking her children's friends to a game, to the clergy opening his place of worship to the children of God," said Petit. "No one is exempt from this bill. The state is mandating who you can and cannot love, allow into your place of worship, business, or home; who you and your family can befriend, and how to interact with your neighbors, friends, and family who are immigrants in our state. It is time for Floridians to speak up and question the spineless puppet legislators who are supporting these inhumane and pointless divisive policies [and] destroying our Florida Way!"
Under the bills, The New York Timesreported Monday, Florida residents could be charged with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, for "knowingly" transporting, concealing, or harboring undocumented immigrants.
There is nothing in the bill, said American Immigration Council (AIC) policy director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, that would stop the state from prosecuting people who transport their undocumented family members in their vehicles or a bus driver who takes undocumented children to school.
As the Times reported, hospitals would also be required to ask patients their immigration status and report undocumented patients to the state; while immigrants could still ostensibly get care, critics say the policy would likely cause many to avoid medical care out of fear.
The bills would invalidate undocumented immigrants' drivers licenses and prevent them from being admitted to the state bar, while DeSantis has also proposed eliminating in-state college tuition for undocumented students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
New penalties would be imposed for employers who hire immigrants without work authorization. Six percent of the state's workforce was made up of undocumented immigrants in 2016, the AIC reported, and immigrants make up 35% of healthcare support employees, 38% of construction workers, and 49% of farming, fishing, and forestry workers.
"This is vile and disgusting, particularly in a state whose cultural vibrancy comes from waves of immigration," said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.
The state's ACLU chapter warned the legislation, which is expected to pass in the coming weeks, will "quickly turn Florida into a vigilante, 'show me your papers' state" where residents are afraid to help other community members for fear of criminal charges.
Journalist Dan Froomkin suggested that with Republican voters nationwide showing support for increasing deportations of undocumented immigrants and ramping up border security measures and opposing policies to provide undocumented people with a pathway to citizenship, DeSantis is opening people across his state up to potential prosecution in service of his expected presidential campaign.
"This is not a 'crackdown,'" said Froomkin. "It is the adoption of cruel and extremist measures to punish undocumented human beings and those who would treat them humanely, in order to win the GOP's race to the moral bottom."