Opinion DeSantis’s drastic anti-immigration bill just got defanged
"Florida’s Republican lawmakers appear to face an audacious, self-imposed litmus test in the current GOP-controlled legislative season: Will their bills help catapult Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) into the White House in 2024?
How else to explain the parade of radical bills — banning abortion after six weeks, loosening gun laws in a trigger-happy state — inflicted on Florida this year?
But this week, Republican legislators, usually working in lockstep with the powerful governor, seemed to realize that they had run up against another muscular force: Florida immigrants, who numbered 4.5 million strong according to a 2018 census analysis, and accounted for 21 percent of the population. Florida’s immigrants hold great political and economic sway in churches and workplaces — and at the voting booth.
The result: a draconian immigration bill that had attracted widespread attention when introduced earlier this year — and would have affected not just migrants but also U.S. citizens and employers — was softened into near-mush late Monday.
Sure, when the proposals were unveiled, DeSantis got the sort of anti-immigration tough-talk headlines that play well with the Republican base. But even before the bill was watered down, its practical effect was going to do little to dissuade migrants from crossing the southern border to come to Florida, which was its express goal.
The original bills in the state House and Senate appeared to be mostly about Republican posturing. They would have turned family, friends, volunteers, landlords, church officials and others into felons for driving, housing or “concealing” migrants who live in legal limbo here in Florida.
Who was going to enforce this mandate? Police officers who are already as confused as the rest of us by convoluted federal immigration laws? Would they have profiled the Latino-looking guy driving a pickup truck but not the White Russian waiter? Would neighbors have dimed out neighbors?
“It was inhuman, a bad piece of legislation,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who has long dealt with Miami’s myriad immigration crises, told me. “I can sympathize with people’s frustrations with our broken immigration system, but we can’t take it out on immigrants.”
The softened version of the bills now punish only those people who transport migrants into Florida, not in and around the state itself, and makes no mention of housing or concealing.
DeSantis also initially sought to require private employers to use the federal E-Verify program to check work authorizations, a move DeSantis touted. E-Verify has long been disliked by employers as onerous and prone to mistakes.
But that proved too much for lawmakers. Instead the bill will no longer mandate E-Verify for businesses with fewer than 25 employees. That typically includes people who work in a home, such as gardeners, maids, nannies and home health-care workers.
So, what prompted Republican lawmakers to backtrack?
Churches and businesses, two powerful groups, bonded over their antipathy for the measures and then leveraged their influence with Republicans. Catholic and evangelical leaders publicly denounced the bill, which could have turned acts of Christian charity into third-degree felonies. In doing so, they sent a clear message: We follow Jesus, not DeSantis.
Business groups, including agricultural operations, also megaphoned their displeasure. The reality is that without immigrant workers, Florida’s major industries — service and otherwise — would sputter.
While the legislation is still problematic, it is more palatable now.
What were lawmakers and DeSantis thinking? Florida is a state bulging with immigrants who help immigrants; Spanish, not English, is basically a requirement in the Miami metropolis. Latinos are widely credited for transforming the city into an economic powerhouse.
The original proposed legislation might have sweetened DeSantis’s presidential prospects in the South and Midwest — but in Florida, not so much.
Oddly, though, one thing overlooked in media coverage of the original legislation is that — despite its drastic outlines — it would have actually affected few recent Florida migrants. That’s even more true with the recent revisions. Lawmakers exempted, in many cases, those who have either been “inspected” by the federal government at the border or are “lawfully present” — a slippery term in Florida.
A large majority of the Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans who have arrived in Florida in recent years have presented themselves at the southern border and were “inspected” by the border patrol, Wilfredo O. Allen, a veteran Miami immigration lawyer, told me.
They exist here in a complicated legal limbo — not illegal, not fully legal — as they await decisions on their political asylum applications, which can take years. Some receive work permits. People who arrive by plane are also inspected. In addition, President Biden has granted many Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadoran, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans temporary reprieve from deportation.
Traditional “undocumented” immigrants still exist here, but are rarer in today’s Florida. What’s plentiful in the state are Republican lawmakers eager to polish DeSantis’s presidential prospects. But even they have their limits.
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