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Standing before a podium displaying the words “Biden’s Border Crisis,” Gov. Ron DeSantis announced legislation Thursday that will increase the penalties for human smuggling while cracking down on paths to employment, education and obtaining legal identification for undocumented immigrants.
DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden throughout his speech Thursday, suggesting that the federal government has not done enough to curb illegal immigration and was forcing him to take matters into his own hands.
The legislation, part of an ongoing effort by the state to respond to a surge of migrants from Haiti and Cuba, seeks to require all employers, not just government employers, to use the E-verify system to determine employees’ eligibility, and penalize all employers who fail to do so.
“If you remove the enticement of employment, then they’re not going to want to come illegally to the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville Thursday morning.
DeSantis had attempted to institute a similar requirement in the 2020 legislative session, but said he settled for a “compromise” after meeting resistance from other Republicans who raised concerns that it would burden private businesses. He believes the requirement is likely to pass this time around.
The 2020 bill required government contractors in Florida to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm their hires were legal, but exempted industries with large numbers of undocumented workers like agriculture and tourism.
In the first five months the new law was in effect in 2021, the Orlando Sentinel found there had been no complaints and no enforcement measures taken against any employers.
The proposed legislation would allow the state to revoke all employers’ licenses if they fail to follow the E-verify requirement twice within 24 months.
DeSantis is also seeking to remove any paths that undocumented immigrants currently have to obtain a legal identity in the United States, something he accused local governments and nonprofits of providing through the creation of identification cards.
“Florida correctly prohibits driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and we will continue to prohibit that,” he said. “However, what local governments are doing is trying to circumvent that.”
The new legislation would prohibit local governments from funding those efforts and “invalidate all out-of-state licenses given to illegal aliens,” DeSantis said.
It would also prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving out-of-state tuition waivers to attend Florida colleges or universities.
And it would make it a third-degree felony for anyone “to knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor an illegal alien within or into the state,” a separate offense for each individual, and a second-degree felony if the person is a minor.
The migrants themselves would be detained as “material witnesses” in the criminal proceeding, DeSantis said.
The governor and fellow Florida Republicans sought to link undocumented immigration to crime in Florida throughout their speeches Thursday, focusing on the drug trade and the opioid epidemic.
State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia said in a speech that the federal government is “an absolute mess,” and undocumented immigration was “enabling drug cartels to allow things like fentanyl to come into our community and kill our friends, families and the community itself.”
Most fentanyl traffickers, or over 80%, are U.S citizens, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, based on data from 2014 to 2018.
House Rep. Kiyan Michael described losing her son in a car crash with an undocumented immigrant, which she said was evidence of a need for further restrictions on employment.
“E-verify is needed because the person that killed our son was going to buy paint,” she said.
Multiple immigration advocacy organizations criticized the legislation as “draconian,” saying it would harm Florida’s economy in addition to undocumented and documented immigrants who currently reside in the state.
“Florida is home to millions of mixed-status families,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement. “DeSantis’ xenophobic policies place Florida residents — regardless of immigration status — in danger of unfair targeting and racial profiling.”
The organization pointed to the part of the legislation that criminalizes transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants, arguing it could apply to routine activities like driving someone in a car, not just human smuggling.
“Anyone, even U.S. citizens, will be subject to arrest simply for giving someone a ride to the doctor, school or church,” the release said.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago, the Florida State Director for American Business Immigration Coalition Action, which advocates for businesses that employ immigrant workers, said the legislation would exacerbate the state’s existing struggles with the labor shortage and inflation.
“The reality is that immigrants fill a critical labor shortage that has allowed historically for our economy to grow into what it is today,” he said. “... At the end of the day, what we’ve seen in last two years, with the inflation crises we have going on, is labor shortages not only impact employers but every-day people, because the cost of food goes up, the cost of rent goes up, and the cost of housing goes up.”
Santiago also worried that the legislation could create a chilling effect that dissuades immigrants from moving to Florida and taking vital jobs.
“Immigrants are not going to be incentivized to move to a state in which they are being constantly demonized on biweekly basis by the governor and legislature,” he said. “What’s going to happen to those open positions? They remain open.”
Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.
Staff writer Shira Moolten can be reached at smoolten@SunSentinel.com