'Guise for a presidential election': Florida House moves forward with DeSantis' controversial immigration bill

The bill is similar to proposals that DeSantis announced in January during a news conference in Jacksonville.

Photo via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Flickr
Following the lead of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida House members Thursday began moving forward with a controversial proposal to try to boost immigration enforcement and target companies that transport undocumented immigrants into the state.

The Republican-controlled House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee voted 12-5 along nearly straight party lines to approve the bill (HB 1355). A Senate committee last week gave initial approval to an identical bill (SB 1808).

GOP lawmakers, echoing frequent arguments by DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, contended that the state needs to take steps to address immigration enforcement because of failures of the federal government.

“We know, through a complete dereliction of duty, the federal government has allowed the Southern border to be an open stream,” House sponsor John Snyder, R-Stuart, said.

But Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said the bill is a “guise for a presidential election,” as DeSantis is widely viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the White House in 2024. She also said immigration enforcement is beyond the role of state lawmakers.

“We are not here to develop immigration policy,” Thompson said. “That is the responsibility of Congress. So, if there is an issue, it needs to be taken to Congress.”

Rep. James Bush, D-Miami, was the only lawmaker to cross party lines, joining Republicans in supporting the measure.

The bill is similar to proposals that DeSantis announced in January during a news conference in Jacksonville, including cracking down on transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state.

The proposal would bar the state and local governments from contracting with such companies “if the carrier is willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting an unauthorized alien into the State of Florida knowing that the unauthorized alien entered into or remains in the United States in violation of law.”

Thompson questioned Snyder about whether any companies that transport undocumented immigrants for the federal government have state or local contracts. Snyder said efforts are underway to determine the transportation companies that are involved and whether they have such contracts.

Opponents of the bill argued that targeting transportation companies could prevent unaccompanied immigrant children from being brought into the state for care and shelter.

“The transportation is not illegal,” said Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for the Florida Center for Fiscal & Economic Policy who has long worked on social-service and children’s issues. “It is being covered, it is required by federal law.”

But Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, pushed back against the arguments.

“This bill does two good things,” he said. “It tells people to comply with the law, and it tells companies we’re not going to do business with you as a government if you break the law.”

The bill also would require counties to enter agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in a program in which local law-enforcement officers help in immigration enforcement. A Senate staff analysis said 49 Florida law-enforcement agencies already have such agreements.

In addition, the bill would expand a 2019 law that sought to ban so-called sanctuary cities. It would prevent local governments from blocking law-enforcement agencies from sharing information with the state about the immigration status of people in custody.

The 2019 law was designed to spur local law-enforcement agencies to fully comply with federal immigration detainers and share information with immigration authorities after undocumented immigrants are in custody.

But U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom in September ruled that two parts of the sanctuary-cities law violated constitutional due-process rights — a ruling the state has appealed. Bloom pointed to what she described as an “immigrant threat narrative” that helped lead to the law.
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