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DeSantis Targets Immigrants in Lead-Up to Likely Presidential Run

Advocates in Florida are preparing to address the “surveillance state” created by DeSantis’s anti-immigrant proposals.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech after defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on November 8, 2022, in Tampa, Florida.

Ahead of his anticipated announcement of a 2024 presidential run, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent the month of February targeting immigrant communities with draconian and dangerous policies — a strategy that proved successful for former President Donald Trump.

On Feb. 24, DeSantis announced an extensive legislative proposal that would target a wide array of immigrant communities and grant government officials unparalleled authority to surveil, punish, and criminalize undocumented immigrants. Similar to California’s Proposition 187, which was found unconstitutional, DeSantis’ proposal takes aim at access to health care, education, and employment for mixed-status families.

The proposal would prohibit local governments from issuing ID cards to undocumented immigrants and invalidate out-of-state licenses issued to undocumented immigrants. DeSantis’ legislation would also mandate hospitals to collect data on patient immigration statuses and submit reports on the cost of care provided to immigrants. Out-of-state tuition waivers for undocumented students attending colleges and universities would also be prohibited, and the state would ban undocumented attorneys from practicing law in the state.

As a ploy to address “human smuggling,” DeSantis is also proposing harsh criminalization for any Floridian who transports or provides shelter to a broad category of immigrants. For example, transporting an immigrant child would be punishable by 15 years in prison, and the child would be detained by law enforcement as a material witness.

DeSantis is also proposing universal use of E-Verify, a web-based system operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in partnership with the Social Security Administration that allows employers to electronically verify that new hires are authorized to work in the country. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, implementing the I-9 process that requires employers to verify employees have lawful status and are authorized to work in the U.S. Overwhelmingly, IRCA criminalized undocumented labor and pushed migrant workers into precarious work arrangements — an issue the Biden administration has recently tried to chip away at through new protections for migrant workers. Under DeSantis’ proposal, undocumented workers in Florida, a state that already lacks basic protections for migrant workers in outdoor industries, would be pushed into even more dangerous and exploitative work arrangements. The governor’s proposals will embolden employers to threaten immigration enforcement against workers who report wage theft, harassment, and other forms of abuse.

Constituents have already expressed “deep concerns” regarding DeSantis’ proposals. Working with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, faith and business leaders are encouraging Floridians to sign a letter addressed to DeSantis and members of his administration that warns of the harmful effects of the proposed legislation.

In a press release regarding the letter, Sister Ann Kendrick, co-founder of Apopka, Florida’s Hope CommUnity Center (HCC), said that DeSantis is “making a mockery” of the suffering of immigrants and that he “must be stopped.”

“HCC strongly opposes the attitude and method the governor of Florida is taking to continue to terrorize migrant families in the State of Florida,” Kendrick said in a statement. “Human beings have a right to migrate to flee death, in search of conditions where they can find safe places to work, raise their families, and be protected from violence and find adequate work to support themselves and their families.”

The Florida GOP has aided DeSantis’ anti-immigrant efforts. On Feb. 10, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 6-B, which expands DeSantis’ political stunt known as the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program. The law enables law enforcement and authorities with the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM) to target “inspected unauthorized aliens” anywhere in the U.S., and it allows Florida officials to transport these asylum-seekers and other newly arrived migrants to other states. DeSantis signed SB 6-B into law on Feb. 15.

During a Feb. 16 press conference, Shalyn Fluharty, an immigration attorney and the executive director of the nonprofit law firm Americans for Immigrant Justice, said one of the most “baffling” parts of DeSantis’ new law is its use of “inspected unauthorized aliens” because this phrase does not appear in existing immigration law.

“So what we’re talking about in relation to this transportation program that has now been expanded is asking the state of Florida to invest resources in surveilling, tracking, and ultimately moving — transporting — individuals who have been inspected and brought into our federal immigration system,” Fluharty explained. “This, in theory, would not relate to people who have not had interaction with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol]. And the reason that this is important is because when someone has been inspected by an officer who works with [federal immigration authorities], if they are no longer in federal immigration detention, it usually is for a very specific reason and under very specific sort of contractual obligations and terms.”

Asylum-seekers and other vulnerable immigrants in the U.S. often have authority from federal officials to be in the U.S. under very specific circumstances. Many of these migrants have complicated cases that require specific guidance and expertise. But DeSantis’ law is structured to give Florida officials — who have received no specialized training in immigration law — overarching authority to determine a person’s immigration status and whether or not they are lawfully present in the U.S.

“[T]he bottom line is that we have a state government that is trying to erect, without the resources, training, or experience, its own statewide immigration system. And regardless of the intentions of our governor, what this means is that there is a direct conflict between federal immigration law and state law that is going to create chaos and disorder,” Fluharty said.

DeSantis created his original relocation program last year via Section 185 of the 2022-23 General Appropriations Act, allocating $12 million to the Florida Department of Transportation to transport migrants initially located within Florida, which, in practice, targeted Democrat-led so-called “sanctuary cities” as drop-off locations. The Florida legislature has pledged $10 million on the newly expanded relocation program.

Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told Prism that it is not just the responsibility of advocates to inform immigrant communities of what’s happening under DeSantis’ leadership. Petit said it is also the media’s job to help inform immigrant communities in Florida how to put safeguards in place for their own protection. The executive director advised newly arrived migrants and mixed-status families in the state against sharing any information about their immigration status with people they don’t know and to be wary of anyone asking questions.

“The people who were victim[s] of the Martha’s Vineyard stunt were misinformed. They were lied to; they were misguided. And we encourage everyone, not only migrants, to be careful. And we encourage Floridians to remind them — to remind new arrivals — that they need to be careful because [Florida officials] will try to misguide them. They will try to misinform them,” Petit said.

The executive director is referencing a DeSantis stunt last year that displaced dozens of vulnerable migrants. In September, Florida officials organized the unconstitutional transport of 49 asylum-seekers who were never in Florida to begin with by using funds intended to move migrants who were located in the state. Officials in DeSantis’ administration reportedly lied to and coerced the mostly Venezuelan migrants in Texas onto two planes that ended up on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. The asylum-seekers were not given information about where they were going and allege that officials promised they would have access to housing and jobs when they landed. Meanwhile, the DeSantis administration gave Martha’s Vineyard officials no prior notice the asylum-seekers were arriving. SB 6-B, in expanding the program’s reach to asylum-seekers who are starting from outside of Florida, is a clear effort to help DeSantis sidestep a series of lawsuits related to the Martha’s Vineyard debacle.

Shortly after the flights, NPR reported that Lawyers for Civil Rights, along with the migrant-led nonprofit Alianza Americas, filed a lawsuit in Boston on behalf of the “Vineyard migrants and all similarly situated people who are fraudulently induced to travel across state lines by DeSantis and the State of Florida.” That same September, Florida state Sen. Jason Pizzo filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and members of his administration, alleging authorities failed to meet the requirements set by the Florida Legislature to only transport migrants from within the state. In December, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the HCC also filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and other members of his administration challenging the constitutionality of the relocation program. DeSantis is also under investigation by Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, whose agency is looking into how Florida officials “lured” 49 Venezuelan migrants onto flights to Martha’s Vineyard.

Circuit Judge John Cooper dismissed Pizzo’s lawsuit on Feb. 22, and SB 6-B will likely create legal challenges for the remaining suits — clearly the goal of the 12-day special session called early this month by the Republican lawmakers who control the Florida legislature. GOP legislators all but confirmed the goal of the session was to help DeSantis “clean up legal and political dilemmas,” Politico reported.

DeSantis couches his onslaught of anti-immigrant efforts as actions against the “increasing threats posed by illegal immigration as a result of the Biden administration’s failure to secure our nation’s borders.” However, the governor’s political stunts and fearmongering intend to appeal to uninformed constituents. Polarized voters may be unable to see how extensively President Joe Biden has adopted and recycled harsh Trump-era immigration policies that have already been challenged in court.

Last week, the Biden administration announced a proposed federal rule to implement a near-total asylum ban at the southern border. The confusing policy prevents migrants from requesting asylum in the U.S. if they first traveled through another country and did not request asylum there, functionally making it near impossible for migrants who aren’t starting from Mexico to request asylum in the U.S. According to data from 2020, asylum applications from Mexican migrants are denied 85% of the time.

While on the campaign trail, Biden said the nation’s immigration challenges would not be solved by “denying asylum to people fleeing persecution and violence.” While GOP officials like DeSantis characterize the Biden administration as refusing to enforce immigration laws, in reality, President Biden is pushing for an unconstitutional, repackaged Trump-era policy that did not previously stand in court — and immigration advocates are already preparing to sue the administration.

Meanwhile, advocates in Florida are preparing to address the “surveillance state” created by DeSantis’ anti-immigrant proposals. A.J. Hernández Anderson, a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said DeSantis’ political posturing poses a real danger to all Floridians and will have a chilling effect on cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant communities, resulting in serious consequences for mixed-status families and people of color.

“DeSantis’ racist and xenophobic legislative proposals will harm all Floridians and damage public health, public safety, and Florida businesses,” Hernández Anderson said in a statement. “Florida is home to millions of mixed-status families. DeSantis’ xenophobic policies place Florida residents — regardless of immigration status — in danger of unfair targeting and racial profiling.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.”

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