TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republicans on Tuesday handed Gov. Ron DeSantis another legislative victory after lawmakers signed off on a sweeping anti-immigration measure that will guarantee millions of dollars more for a controversial program the governor used to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
DeSantis, who is expected to announce a run for president in the coming weeks, has repeatedly faulted President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and regularly criticizes the administration’s handling of the surge of migrants crossing into the U.S. at the southern border.
The governor and his Republican allies contended that the newly approved bill will send a “message” to the Biden administration, while Democrats countered the legislation was overtly cruel and intimidating to migrants.
House lawmakers approved the measure after debating for 90 minutes, culminating with bill sponsor Rep. Kiyan Michael, a Jacksonville Republican who was elected last year, recounting how someone who had entered the country illegally had killed her 21-year-old son in a car accident while he was driving to the bank to cash his paycheck.
“The price of illegal immigration cost us everything,” said Michael, who won a GOP primary last year with the help of an endorsement by DeSantis. “There is not an ounce of malice in my heart … I just want it to stop. It has to stop and it is insane if we are waiting on Washington, D.C. to do something.”
But Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat whose parents immigrated from Cuba, contended the bill “demonized marginalized people.”
“Immigrants are people just like us except they did not have the fortune to be in the United States,” Valdes said.
Republicans have pushed immigration into the spotlight during the Biden administration, highlighting the thousands of asylum seekers that have attempted to cross into the country. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has bused hundreds of migrants to cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., straining city resources in those blue strongholds.
Florida also saw a huge influx of migrants when hundreds of Cuban and Haitian asylum seekers landed in the Florida Keys by boats in December and January, forcing DeSantis to activate the state national guard to respond.
DeSantis has repeatedly pushed anti-immigration measures during his time in office, starting with a push for legislators to ban “sanctuary cities” and culminating with this year’s comprehensive bill.
The legislation lawmakers passed Tuesday would require medium-sized and large employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of new employees and mandates hospitals to ask patients about their legal status. The bill, S.B. 1718, will also allow authorities to charge someone with human trafficking if they knowingly transport an undocumented migrant across state lines. It would also prohibit an undocumented immigrant from driving a car even if they have a driver’s license from another state.
Legislators also set aside $12 million in the bill for the DeSantis administration to transport migrants from outside the state to Democratic strongholds and agreed to roll back a measure adopted in 2014 by Republicans and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott that allowed undocumented individuals to be admitted to the Florida Bar.
DeSantis had also called on legislators to repeal a law that allows undocumented children to qualify for in-state college tuition if they attended a Florida high school for three straight years. The measure was adopted at the urging of Scott and was sponsored by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez while she was in the state House.
Back in February, DeSantis said that “if we want to hold the line on tuition, then you have got to say ‘you need to be a U.S. citizen living in Florida.’” But the proposal never surfaced during the session and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said she urged DeSantis to drop the idea for this year.
Immigration advocates and other groups strongly condemned the bill, with some even calling it “racist” and threatened to challenge it in court.
“DeSantis’ political shenanigans will force every Floridian to pay a heavy price,” said Paul R. Chavez, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “This bill will push hundreds of thousands of people into the shadows, including U.S. citizens, putting freedom and even our state’s economy at risk. ... This cruel and misguided effort will negatively impact public safety and public health and cause harm to all Floridians.”
Republicans, however, defended the legislation. State Rep. Berny Jacques, a Seminole Republican who immigrated from Haiti when he was a child, told Democrats that he wished they “had the same energy” defending American citizens.
“This bill protects our citizens,” Jacques said. “This bill protects the people who are here legally and did it the right way. People like my family.”