TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Delivering on one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities, the Florida House on Wednesday passed an immigration bill targeting transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state and expanding a 2019 law that sought to ban so-called "sanctuary cities."
The bill (SB 1808), among the 2022 legislative session’s most-contentious issues, would prohibit state and local government agencies from contracting with companies "if the carrier is willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting a person into the state of Florida knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien, except to facilitate the detention, removal or deportation of the person" from the state or the U.S.
The measure also would define unauthorized alien as "a person who is unlawfully present in the United States" according to the Federal Immigration and Nationality Act.
Critics of the bill, which the Senate approved last week, maintain that it poses a threat to thousands of migrants in the state whose temporary visas have expired or whose applications for asylum already are in the pipeline.
DeSantis has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration on immigration issues during the past year and has taken steps such as sending Florida law-enforcement officers to Texas to aid with border issues.
During debate on the House floor Wednesday, Republicans railed against so-called "ghost flights" bringing undocumented immigrants into the state and repeatedly expressed support for migrants who enter the country in what they called "the right way."
(Courtesy: US Coast Guard)
Rep. Webster Barnaby, a Deltona Republican who emigrated from England, said he waited 11 years before his U.S. citizenship was finalized.
"What we have happening today in the United States … is nothing short of an invasion," Barnaby said. "I didn’t come to America to invade America. I came to America in the right way. And it’s absolutely amazing to me to see that a country wants to implode and destroy itself not from outside but from within."
The proposal coincides with an administrative effort by DeSantis to shutter shelters that provide housing and other services to unaccompanied children whose immigration or refugee status is being processed after they enter the country.
Democrats argued Wednesday that the legislation targets people fleeing from countries overrun with violence and poverty, including unaccompanied minors. They accused Republican legislators, who hold significant majorities in both the House and Senate, of using the bill to score points with right-leaning GOP voters.
"This is another example of political rhetoric and campaigns that’s created into a bill," Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. "This entire bill is a façade being used to boost up campaign coffers in 2022 and 2024, because I know the second this bill is signed by the governor, there’ll be a fundraising email coming out right after."
The governor, widely seen as a potential contender for president in 2024, boasted about the bill during an appearance last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
But in a letter to legislative leaders last week, organizations representing Florida’s Venezuelan-American community decried the bill, arguing that it would put thousands of workers at risk of deportation.
"Every time we pass another bill like this, it sends a message to those families, and mine as well, that they’re not welcome here anymore. It chips away at the soul, bit by bit, and eventually will change the character of who we are as a nation," said Rep. Susan Valdés, a Tampa Democrat whose parents emigrated from Cuba.
Republicans argued that undocumented immigrants entering the state on so-called "ghost" flights pose a threat to Floridians’ safety.
"They get into crime. They start driving vehicles drunk," Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, said. "Why should we penalize people that are trying to do it the right way. … Have them come over legal, have them become American citizens so they can be productive citizens."
But House Minority Co-Leader Evan Jenne disputed Bell’s comments.
"The anecdotal information you just heard is patently false. It is anecdotal and in no way scientifically relevant or statistically relevant to the debate at hand," Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said, pointing to a long-term study released last year showing that U.S. citizens in Texas were twice as likely to be arrested for violent felonies over nearly a decade. "If we’re going to say things on this floor, we need to be certain that they are factual and not opinion."
Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead, warned that the bill would lead to an increase in human trafficking and people entering the country through the "black market."
"Shame on us. The blood is on our hands because we’re the ones that are trying to keep the door closed on the American dream. And if we look at our ancestry, half of our ancestors who weren’t brought in on slave ships, they didn’t come here legally, either. They came here by any means necessary. When they got here, they tried as hard as they could to work, to contribute to society, to make their family have a positive life … even if it means that they would get caught coming here illegally," he argued.
But Rep. Ralph Massulo, R-Lecanto, said lawmakers have a duty to protect citizens.
"By any means necessary? You’re kidding me. If I need money, I’m gonna go rob a bank, by any means necessary. If I don’t like someone, I can have them taken out by any means necessary. That’s not America," he said.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, contended that argument is based on a faulty premise.
"The midnight flights in the dead of night, they’re not illegal. They’re not secret. There’s nothing scary about them. There’s no invasion," Smith said. "This bill seeks to block legal transportation of children and other immigrants in Florida as part of a coordinated effort by DeSantis to expel children and immigrant families seeking asylum from coming to Florida."
Bill sponsor John Snyder, R-Stuart, accused Democrats of "political theater" in their debate on the measure.
"We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, circumventing the line of people who were waiting patiently, diligently and lawfully to become immigrants in this country. It’s OK for Barack Obama to say, but the moment that Gov. Ron DeSantis highlights the invasion that happens in the state of Florida, now we’re being called xenophobic," he said.