The Law vs. the Immigrant

Understanding Florida’s SB-1718

Silvia Muñoz

On May 10, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the most restrictive and feared immigration Bill in Florida’s history, SB-1718. This law will become effective July 1st, 2023. There are many questions and misinformation about this law, and I will try to summarize what it is and what it is not.

How did this bill come about? It is well known that Governor DeSantis is considering running for President of the United States in the 2024 General Election and most of his agenda in the 2023 congressional session has been to attract as many people as he can to his camp by being more radical than anybody else in his party in all aspects but specially immigration, and in the process striking fear in Florida’s immigrant communities. The original proposal of the law was worse than what passed, thanks in part to the push back from activists and church leaders that give humanitarian aid to immigrants and were facing felony charges, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, by a simple act of giving a ride to, or housing, an undocumented immigrant. The Bill passed with no problem thanks to the majority the Republicans have in both chambers of the Florida Legislature.

So, what’s in this bill? The following information on SB1718 was taken from the “We Are Florida” campaign of FLIC (Florida Immigrant Coalition). The law, as passed and signed by Governor DeSantis will:

  • Require employers with 25 employees or more to use the unreliable E-verify system.
  • Force hospital and emergency departments that accept Medicaid to collect the patient’s immigration status.
  • Criminalize those who travel with a person who is without a regulated immigration status into the state of Florida with a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
  • Prohibit funding for community ID programs.
  • Invalidate legally issued out-of-state driver’s licenses for those without a regulated immigration status. 
  • Have the Chief of Domestic Security coordinate immigration enforcement actions in Florida.
  • Repeal the law allowing lawyers, who are still regulating their status, from practicing law.
  • Allow law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from people detained under a federal detainer request who do not possess a regulated immigration status.

The following refers to provisions form the original proposal but were not included in SB1718 because of push back from the community, which means that:

  • It will not be a crime to live, provide shelter, or rent space for family members, friends or neighbors who have an unregulated status.
  • It will not be a crime to provide transportation within the state of Florida to any person with an unregulated status.
  • The E-Verify system will only be required for employers with 25 employees or more.
  • You do not need to provide your immigration status to hospitals - you have the right to decline to answer.

So now that we have stated what the law is and is not, let us analyze it’s impact on our immigrant population. The number one problem with this law is the amount of fear it has instilled in our community. Keep in mind that a lot of our families are of mixed status, meaning that some of its members are citizens or Legal Permanent Residents, while others are not. There is a lot of misinformation all over social media and even in some news outlets. People are afraid of being deported, even those with a legitimate asylum case still waiting for their case to go through the immigration legal system. Who is considered undocumented? People that have arrived in the USA by crossing the border or by boat, are either deported or, if credible fear is proven, given a chance to present their asylum case in court. As mentioned before, that process takes a long time but the agency that processes these immigrants give them about a month of parole, knowing full well that nothing can be accomplished in that amount of time. Are these people, and those who already applied for asylum but are still waiting for a court date, considered “unregulated”? It is not clear as far as I can tell. Let’s take an example: If I, a US citizen, go to Georgia for a family wedding with my newly arrived husband, who is still in the process of getting his papers in order, and drive back to Florida it seems -according to the law starting July 1- that I can be charged with a felony, punishable to up to 15 years in prison just for bringing a migrant with an “unregulated” status, back to the state. 

On a recent program of The Floridan Roundup that discussed the effects of this law on the immigrant population it was noted that the effects are also being felt by businesses that depend heavily on immigrant labor. It was stated that construction and roofing companies, as well as farms, are already seeing a decline in workers, weeks before the law is effective. It was also mentioned that migrants are afraid to seek medical care for fear of being deported. Add to all these the problem we have in South Florida with affordable housing and many migrants are choosing to move out of state, something that may be what was intended by this law, but in the long run, will affect businesses as well as the price of food and housing.

Unfortunately, SB1718 is not the first nor will it be the last legislation or mandate targeting the immigrant population. From the very beginning, one of the ads of then candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis, had him sitting down with his baby building a wall with children’s blocks, already positioning himself as a fighter against immigration. More recently, in spite of lots of Florida's urgent problems -affordable housing the most important-, Governor DeSantis has allocated millions of dollars to send around 1,100 law enforcement officers from different agencies, plus aircrafts, drones and boats, to help with the crisis at the border, a crisis that has not materialized as expected after Title 42 ended. 

At this point I want to clarify some misconceptions. A lot of people call undocumented immigrants “illegals”. No human being is illegal! No one leaves their own country and risks their life in a dangerous journey unless they do not have another choice to save their lives or that of their children. All immigrants crossing through the border are doing so because it is impossible for them to come to this country any other way. Once they are approached by Border Patrol (BP), they are interviewed and, if the BP agents believe the person or family has a legitimate claim for asylum, they are released on parole and set free, some with ankle or phone monitors; all must check-in on a regular basis at an ICE facility and continue, hopefully with the help of an immigration lawyer, the asylum application that needs to be filed  within one year of arriving in the US. These immigrants, although lacking documents are not “illegals”, they are undocumented in the process of gaining a green card or Permanent Legal Residency. This process takes time and money.

Another misconception, or lie, being repeated on social media and some news organizations is that immigrants are criminals, they come to steal from you, they are rapists, bring drugs, are gang members, you name it. This narrative has created an animosity against newly arrived immigrants, even from fellow immigrants who arrived years earlier and believe they are different from the newly arrived. I know that not everyone that comes here is a “good” person. But I also know that the vast majority are hardworking and the only thing they want is to be given an opportunity to make a living without fear of being killed. In a study done by Alex Nowrasteh, The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong it states: “We found that illegal immigrant incarceration rates were about half those of native-born Americans in 2017.”¹ Sociologists Michael Light and Ty Miller, in peer-reviewed journals, stated that “a higher illegal immigrant population does not increase violent crime rates.”² Another “FACT: Immigrants, including illegal immigrants, are less likely to be incarcerated in prisons, convicted of crimes, or arrested than native-born Americans.”³ Keep in mind that being an illegal immigrant in the United States is not a crime; it is a civil infraction.

Our immigration system is broken, everyone knows it, but it is such a hot topic that neither Republicans nor Democrats want to do anything about it to try fix it, so we continue with laws that are outdated and not working. How can you expect an immigrant to pay for a lawyer if you won’t give him or her a work permit to be able to work? That is the reason so many newly arrived immigrants end up working in irregular jobs because they need to support themselves and their families and try to pay the thousands of dollars that an immigration lawyer will charge to take their case.

What can we do as Catholic Christians? We can follow Pope Francis’s Message For the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2018. In his message he tells us it is our responsibility, the Church’s and ours, to respond to the many challenges migrants and refugees face. He goes on: “In this regard, I wish to reaffirm that “our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.⁴ Considering the current situation, welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.”⁵ Voicing our outrage at these laws and regulations is one way of doing it. Hosting or sponsoring an immigrant is another way. Helping organizations and individuals who are in the frontlines defending immigrant rights, is another. Praying for clarity and wisdom is also necessary. Even if you are not aware, many of our neighbors are undocumented immigrants in need of a helping hand; the cleaning lady, the guy that does your yard, the Uber driver, the person sitting next to you at church, the nice woman that takes care of your elderly parent. They must be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated into our society. May God help us all to realize that, indeed, we are our brother’s keepers. 

Silvia Muñoz serves as Director of Social Action of Instituto Jesuita Pedro Arrupe. She is not a lawyer but is deeply involved in advocating for the rights of immigrants and refugees. In 2019 she served as a volunteer at the border at shelters in El Paso, TX and Tucson, AZ. She volunteers with the “Miramar Circle of Protection”, bringing coffee, water, donated items and information, to migrants waiting for their appointment at the ICE facility.

¹ Alex Nowrasteh, “The Most Common Argument Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong”, Cato Institute (2021): 18
² Michael T. Light and Ty Miller, “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?”
Criminology 56 (2018): 370–401.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, “15 Myths About Immigration Bebunked”, (Electronic Report) September 27, 2021.
⁴ Pope Francis Address to Participants in the International Forum on “Migration and Peace”, 21 February 2017.
⁵ Pope Francis “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis For the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018”, 14 January 2018.