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Albany Legal Blog

Ron DeSantis’ “Florida Immigration Policy”

On Behalf of | Jul 31, 2023 | Immigration

Despite being a peninsula with no direct land access to other countries, Florida – like New York – has a great deal of immigrants within its borders.  But unlike New York, Florida has a Governor (and far too many Republican legislators) who would prefer that the undocumented immigrant community in Florida not be there.  Pretty incredible to say (let alone think), considering what I write below.

According to the American Immigration Council (“AIC”), more than one in five people in Florida are immigrants. Despite that the immigration law is a federal law, lawmakers in the Sunshine State often propose (and recently enacted) their own state laws related to immigration, and most recently, regulating the rights of immigrants within the state.

Two recent (and notorious) examples of Florida legislation targeting immigrants include FL 264, which law imposes significant nationality-based restrictions on the ownership of property by individuals from “foreign countries of concern”[1], and FL 1718, which law restricts the ability of undocumented individuals to live and work in Florida.[2]

While both laws are atrocious, from a purely “humanitarian” perspective, I am going to focus on FL 1718 in this missive.

FL 1718 criminalizes the simple act of transporting undocumented immigrants across state lines into Florida. The law also bars non-citizens from using valid driver’s licenses within the state of Florida that were lawfully issued in other states.  The law also impacts an undocumented immigrant’s ability to seek medical care, requiring both hospitals and health care workers to report a patient’s immigration status if they are using Medicare.  Talk about a creating chilling effect on an undocumented immigrant’s access to health care?[3]

Now, some facts.  According to the AIC, (1) immigrants make up 29% of the healthcare workforce in Florida, (2) at least one in seven K-12 teachers and teaching assistants were immigrants in Florida, (3) immigrants make up at least one in six social workers and mental health counselors in Florida, and (4) over 40,000 undocumented immigrants make up 3.1% of all students in Florida’s colleges and universities, including 8,000 DACA-eligible individuals who represented 0.6% of the state’s college students.

By some estimates, approximately 900,000 people are undocumented in the Sunshine State.  Florida ranks among the top five states in the country in terms of the undocumented agricultural worker population. Without undocumented workers, the Florida Policy Institute suggests that the very industries that employ the most undocumented workers (e.g., construction, agriculture, retail, and hospitality) would stand to lose ten percent (10%) of their workforce (and the wages they contribute along with them). In one year alone, Florida’s GDP could drop by $12.6 billion.  I’m assuming that would not be good for Florida (or anyone for that matter).

Imagine the impact to the Florida economy (not to mention the character and quality of the state itself) if there were no immigrants to perform those jobs (undocumented or otherwise).  Imagine how much better Florida would be if there were more immigrants to do jobs that U.S. workers don’t want or U.S. employers can’t find enough of (because Congress did its job so Florida did not have to)!

I suppose no one should be surprised that Ron DeSantis proposed these laws in the first place, considering he previously led the effort to ban sanctuary cities in his own state and organized flights of migrants from Texas and Florida to Martha’s Vineyard.

And what about families?  In a state where one in five residents are immigrants, it should be no surprise that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens live in mixed-status households.  So how does FL 1718 potentially impact those families.  Consider the following example.  Let’s say my spouse was undocumented (or fell out of status) and we lived in Georgia.  Let’s say one day we decided to travel down to Jacksonville for a long weekend.  FL 1718 provides that a person who transports into Florida someone they know (or should have known) is an immigrant who has not been “inspected” by authorities could be charged with a felony for human smuggling.  What does “inspected” mean in this context?  I know of no equivalent under federal immigration law, at least not in this context.

So, back to my hypothetical.  What would happen to me?  Well, under the new law, a person who is found to be transporting less than five undocumented immigrants (or immigrants unlawfully present in the United States), as a first offender, could be charged with a third-degree felony, sentenced to up to five years in prison per person, or pay a fine of $5,000 per count.  The penalties increase for subsequent offenses or for transporting more people or children.  (Add to this that my law license would then be put in jeopardy for having been convicted of a crime.)

I know that people have different opinions on immigration reform, some reasonable and some not.  Until Congress and the Executive Branch finally step in and pass meaningfully immigration reform, we’re going to continue seeing more state law infringement on federal law and the resulting jeopardy to many thousands of families and businesses along the way.

[1] FL 264 became effective on July 1, 2023.  The law places significant restrictions on land ownership by “foreign principals” from specified “foreign countries of concern” (i.e., China, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba).  Specifically, FL 264 prohibits foreign principals from these countries from owning or acquiring agricultural land in the state or owning or acquiring any interest in real property within 10 miles of any military installation or critical infrastructure in the state. Persons who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents are not foreign principals for purposes of FL 264.

[2]  FL 1718 also became effective on July 1, 2023. FL 1718 is a comprehensive effort to restrict the ability of undocumented individuals to live and work in Florida by, among other things, dramatically enhancing the ability of state law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, requiring hospitals to maintain data on patients’ immigration status, mandating the use of E-Verify by Florida employers with over 25 employees, restricting access to Florida drivers licenses (as well as State Bar licenses), and adding state civil and criminal penalties for violations of its provisions.

[3] Additional provisions of FL 1718 seek to hold businesses monetarily liable under Florida state law to the tune of a $10,000 fine for every undocumented employee they employ. Indeed, the state could also revoke their business’ license.