The Legislative Attack on Immigrant Communities in Florida (OPINION)

Mar 17, 2023
5:46 PM

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a debate against Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, at Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce, Florida, on October 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

MIAMI — I grew up without papers in the state, and since undocumented people in Florida are denied access to any sort of driver’s license, I was relegated to walking or riding my bike to work and school for most of my youth.

Fortunately, I had a lot of friends who did own cars and were generous enough to give me a ride from time to time. They knew I was undocumented but they didn’t think twice about it. We were friends and they never thought they would be criminally liable for driving me around. In fact, they were happy to ensure that I wasn’t driving without a license, something that is risky and puts undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation in Florida, due to the high probability of eventually being pulled over by a police officer and potentially arrested.

That all might change soon. In late February, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a series of extreme anti-immigrant proposals for the upcoming legislative session, including repealing previous state laws that offered legal rights and protections to undocumented people and that were supported and signed into law by Republicans.

In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a law allowing undocumented students in the state to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities. While I had thankfully become a U.S. resident by then, I was very happy to see this law passed, as the high cost of paying as a foreign student had made attending college prohibitively expensive for me for years.

Another law passed in 2014 with bipartisan support allowed undocumented people to be admitted to the Florida Bar.

At the time, Republican politicians and now DeSantis acolytes like current Education Commissioner Manny Diaz and Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nunez supported such bills, with the latter also sponsoring the in-state tuition proposal.

Today, DeSantis’ proposals to repeal those earlier laws have been formally introduced as bills in the current Florida Legislature. While the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented students is so far not included, the legislation put forward still constitutes a true civil rights nightmare not just for undocumented people but also for the U.S. citizens of Floridians.

House Bill 1617 and its Senate version, Bill 1718, would institute sweeping criminalization measures against both immigrant communities and U.S. citizens who interact with undocumented people. I list its measures below to underscore just how serious and extreme the implications are for Floridians if this bill becomes law:

  • Increases fines and penalties on Florida businesses that hire undocumented people, including penalties that strip business owners of their business licenses
  • Prohibits undocumented people from using a driver’s license from a state like California and New York, where undocumented people are allowed to have one
  • Outlaws local governments from funding nonprofit groups that create community ID programs allowing undocumented people to do basic tasks like picking up their kids from school or accessing municipal services during an emergency, such as a hurricane
  • Repeals the 2014 law that allows undocumented lawyers to practice law in the state of Florida
  • Mandates that hospitals receiving Medicaid dollars start tracking money spent on caring for immigrant people in emergency rooms
  • Crates a third-degree felony penalty for housing or driving an undocumented person in Florida

The bill is horrific as a whole, but it’s that last bit that truly goes above and beyond in terms of not just criminalizing immigrants but also everyone who interacts with them. Imagine the implications of such a law.

The language of the legislation says that anyone who “transports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has illegally entered the United States,” is liable for a third-degree felony. Another section outlines the same penalty for anyone who “conceals, harbors or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection in any place within the state, including any temporary or permanent structure or through any means of transportation, an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of the law.”

In Florida, there are 722,000 U.S. citizens living with an undocumented person, 343,000 U.S. citizen children living with undocumented family members, and 285,000 of those children living with an undocumented parent. At the same time, 132,000 U.S. citizens have an undocumented spouse.

If this bill is signed into law, these U.S. citizens adults living with an undocumented person could potentially become felons. It would mean that a daughter driving her undocumented mother or a sister driving her undocumented brother could be charged with a third-degree felony.

Beyond criminalizing how family members, friends, co-workers, and loved ones with different immigration statuses interact with each other, this bill also has far-reaching implications for workers in general. Are taxi and Uber drivers in Florida expected to check the immigration status of every single person who enters their vehicle, and are Airbnb hosts expected to do the same?

This is a monstrously dehumanizing proposal that can’t be allowed to be signed into law. Unfortunately, its signage is very likely to happen due to cowardly and sycophantic Republican state lawmakers who are either on board with this fascist legislation or are too scared to stand up to Ron DeSantis and vote against it. The Florida Legislature is currently serving as a rubber stamp for extremist conservative proposals meant to allow DeSantis to stand on a debate stage opposite former President Donald Trump during the upcoming GOP presidential primaries and proclaim himself the most hard-right candidate in the field.

Meanwhile, the people that get caught in these political games are those with the most to lose: family members, friends, and loved ones who will suffer from family separation or be criminalized for merely supporting each other.

Let Florida be a warning to the rest of the country. This is your future if you don’t stop an authoritarian like DeSantis and his minions in their tracks.


Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member from Florida. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @tomaskenn.