DeSantis comes to Jacksonville to push immigration reform

Published on February 23, 2023 at 3:01 pm

Appearing in Jacksonville, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday called for state lawmakers to pass a series of proposals that include stiffer penalties for smuggling people into Florida and expanding use of the E-Verify employment eligibility system.

DeSantis, who is a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, wants lawmakers to pass the measures during the legislative session that will start March 7.

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“I think we’re going to be able to do more in the next couple of months, when the Legislature reconvenes, than anyone’s been able to do in the modern history of Florida,” DeSantis said at Hangar One Club on Wright Brothers Drive.

But the proposals likely will be controversial, with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund quickly blasting DeSantis on Thursday.

“DeSantis’ xenophobic policies place Florida residents — regardless of immigration status — in danger of unfair targeting and racial profiling,” A.J. Hernández Anderson, senior supervising attorney for the organization, said in a prepared statement. “DeSantis’ political posturing will have a chilling effect on cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant communities, resulting in serious consequences for immigrant families, children and persons of color across the state.”

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DeSantis said legislation that will be filed by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would require hospitals to collect data on costs of providing health care to people illegally in the state and prohibit local governments from providing assistance to nonprofit groups that help undocumented immigrants receive government identification.

DeSantis’ proposal also will seek to block undocumented immigrants from practicing law in Florida. It also would reverse a 2014 legislative decision that granted out-of-state tuition fee waivers for undocumented immigrant students.

The proposal to increase criminal penalties for smuggling immigrants into Florida came after a recommendation by a statewide grand jury that was impaneled last year at DeSantis’ request.

DeSantis frequently criticizes the Biden administration over border issues and has backed other immigration legislation in recent years. A news release from his office Thursday said the proposals would “take action against the increasing threats posed by illegal immigration as a result of the Biden administration’s failure to secure our nation’s borders.”

Some of the proposals announced Thursday were tied to past initiatives.

For example, DeSantis issued an executive order in 2021 directing the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to collect data on undocumented hospital patients. But the data collection faced difficulties because most health care facilities didn’t question patients about immigration status.

Data that was collected showed health care spending in Florida on undocumented immigrants approached $340 million during the 2021-2022 fiscal year, according to DeSantis’ office.

Also, attempts to expand required use of the E-Verify system to check the employment status of workers have struggled.

In 2020, DeSantis signed legislation that required all public employers — such as local school districts, public universities and state agencies — and their private contractors to use E-Verify, a system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. When DeSantis first ran for governor in 2018, he vowed to require all employers in the state to use E-Verify.

Asked on Thursday what will make the new proposal different, DeSantis called the 2020 law an “inadequate” compromise. He also noted that Republican majorities in the House and Senate have expanded.

“Now, we have super-majorities in the Legislature,” he said. “We have, I think, a strong mandate to be able to implement the policies that we ran on.”

Businesses that do not use E-Verify are required to keep a three-year record of documents employees use to complete “I-9” forms, which the federal government uses to verify workers’ identities and legal eligibility to work in the U.S. Federal law already requires businesses and workers to fill out the forms.

Along with supporting legislation, DeSantis has taken other high-profile steps to burnish his reputation as tough on immigration. For example, he sent Florida law-enforcement officers to Texas to help with border enforcement.

Last week, DeSantis signed a controversial bill expected to result in Florida transporting migrants to “sanctuary” areas of the country. The bill, passed during a special legislative session, came after the DeSantis administration sparked a controversy — and legal challenges — by transporting about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in September.

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