Ron DeSantis’s “Insidious” Immigration Bill
The Florida governor’s motto: ‘Look for the helpers . . . then target them with felonies.’
RON DESANTIS’S REMARKABLE 2023 legislative session is replete with compassionless quasi-conservative bills that he hopes will power an upcoming presidential campaign. The session is set to reach its apex this month with the signing of a Stephen Miller-style immigration law that targets immigrant communities in his not-really-a-border-state state.
HB 1617: “An Act Related To Unlawful Immigration,” has yet to garner a catchy “Don’t Say Gay”-type moniker to describe its barbarism. My proposal, the “Miep Gies Criminalization Act of 2023,” probably won’t be the one that sticks.
But the name of DeSantis’s legislation matters less than the particulars. Among them: requiring hospitals to collect the immigration status of patients and report it to the government and preventing legal DACA recipients from obtaining law licenses.
But the most troubling provisions are related to the “transport” and “harboring” of immigrants.
From the bill text, under the ominous heading “Human Smuggling”:
A person who knowingly and willfully: (a) Transports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the United States Government since his or her unlawful entry. Or
(b) Conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, in any place within this state, including any temporary or permanent structure or any means of transportation, an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and who has not been inspected by the United States Government since his or her unlawful entry commits a felony of the third degree. [Emphases added.]
I’ve put that last part in italics because it’s kind of important. DeSantis wants to make it so that if you give someone a ride—or welcome them into your home for dinner—and you “reasonably should have known” that they were undocumented, then it’ll be a felony and you can be sent to prison.
You can see where DeSantis will try to take this rhetorically: He wants to make the bill about “child trafficking,” targeting the Mexican cartels while winking at the QAnon crowd.
But actual lawyers believe the targets of this legislation would be much broader than the frazzledrip smuggler of Q’s imagination. Because while the heading on the bill refers to “human smuggling,” the legislation would in fact apply to a wide range of people providing assistance to undocumented immigrants.
I spoke to James G. Martin, an immigration attorney in Sarasota who said the new bill is “insidious,” pointing specifically to its “reasonably should know” standard for criminalizing those who provide shelter or transportation to immigrants.
“This could bleed through to even attorneys. Would we be aiding and abetting somebody?” Martin asked, echoing a concern raised by watchdog and advocacy groups. “What about churches? Hispanic churches? So someone comes to the pastor asking for help, then what?”
“Years ago I’d tell you this would just be struck down—there was an Arizona law like this—but I wouldn’t even say that’s a slam dunk in the courts anymore,” he said, referring to S.B. 1070, a 2010 law that was (largely) rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But no matter how the legal wranglings shake out, everyone I spoke to agrees that the short-term impact is to put in place a chilling effect on any sort of aid to undocumented immigrants in Florida.
I CAN IMAGINE HOW someone who has no real life experience with immigrants might think provisions to “crack down” on the helpers are justifiable. They soothe themselves with pieties about how they support immigrants who “follow the rules.”
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to come here,” said Debbie Mayfield, a Republican state senator, according to the New York Times. “We have a process in this country. We’re not trying to hurt or harm people who are here legally.”
But here’s the thing: Senator Mansfield and her ilk might not be trying to hurt anyone besides the dastardly illegals, who have failed to follow “the process.” But the result of a bill like this would be harm not just towards undocumented immigrants but also any legal residents who come into their lives.
Here’s an example of how a bill like this would affect those who live in the real world: Before the pandemic I was part of a program that provided tutoring for immigrant high schoolers in East Oakland. There was one student in particular I worked with whom I’ll call Sergio for the purposes of this article.
Sergio is an indigenous Guatemalan, part of the Mam people. His family fled violence in their country in the early 2010s and he arrived in the United States legally, as a minor, under an Obama-era asylum program. Sergio lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents, siblings, and some extended family.
While most of Sergio’s family had arrived through what were (at the time) lawful channels, his older brother stayed behind in Guatemala. By the time this brother planned to come to America with his girlfriend, he was too old for the Obama-era program that was meant for Central American children seeking refugee status. The brother and his girlfriend came anyway.
So in this one family home there were both lawful migrants and undocumented immigrants. It was far from an ideal setup. But it was a very American one.
During our time together I saw a hard-working teen who was trying to (1) juggle his construction side hustle that helped his family financially, (2) learn English, and (3) find his way at a rather rough-and-tumble school. Sergio didn’t really fit in with some of the more rebellious teens. He had real responsibilities. He was such a rule follower that he told me he aspired to become a police officer.
Sometimes Sergio and I would go to his house to review his homework while his mother made tamales for us. Other times I would take him out to dinner so he could practice more colloquial, non-textbook English. And on some of those occasions I’d swing by and bring his siblings, if they were at a nearby park or library and needed a ride back home.
Under this new Florida law, me giving Sergio’s undocumented brother a lift would be a felony. And that law would impact everyone around Sergio’s brother. If Sergio’s dad continued to let his undocumented son live in the family apartment—“harboring” him—then they would no longer be an example of immigrants who had done things “the right way.” Instead they’d be exposed to another American tradition, the criminalization of the marginalized. As such, they could be forced to second guess whether to take their son to the hospital if he were sick, for fear of having to report his immigration status and then unmask themselves as now being criminal traffickers.
Same goes for someone like me who would have to understand that he could be targeted for driving Sergio’s brother home from the park.
And here’s where the really insidious part comes in: While this might make a hypothetical tutor think twice about providing a ride, the law almost certainly wouldn’t come for someone like me. Because there is a two-tiered justice system. It’s just not the one Trump is always complaining about. No, it would be much more likely that the law would come for someone like Sergio.
In 2019, I wrote about Francisco Galicia, a young man who was in much the same camp as Sergio. He was here legally, but had an undocumented brother riding home with him from a soccer tournament.
Because of his skin color and his shaky command of English, Francisco was wrongfully jailed in Texas under “suspicion” that he was also undocumented. It was days before he was released.
But under the law Ron DeSantis wants to see enacted in Florida, a kid like Francisco wouldn’t just be detained—he’d be charged with a third-degree felony.
Imagine the impact that a law like this would have on people of good will involved in some way in the lives of young undocumented immigrants like Sergio or Francisco’s brother. A mom on carpool duty. A social worker offering help. Empty nesters who are providing an extra bedroom. All of these folks would have to decide to either take a pass on helping those in need or risk a felony prosecution from a Florida government dead-set on eschewing any iota of compassion for immigrants. (And the financial burden that comes with defending yourself against such a prosecution.)
The worst part—and also the most telling part—is that for all of this anguish, there’s not a needed policy outcome Florida Republicans are trying to achieve. There is no crisis on Florida’s border. There is no economic benefit to cracking down on undocumented workers in a time of massive labor shortages.
The only point of this legislation is to help Ron DeSantis in his effort to get to Donald Trump’s right and appeal to MAGA voters in a presidential primary.
There is still time between now and the bill becoming a law for this provision to be modified. But if it isn’t, the best we can hope for is that it becomes the latest cruel DeSantis political stunt that gets rejected by those in the judiciary who genuinely care about law and order.