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Florida grand jury calls for changes in a law that targets the smuggling of undocumented immigrants

Obama White House Archive

A statewide grand jury this week called for the Legislature to expand a law targeting people who smuggle undocumented immigrants into the state.

The grand jury, impaneled at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis, issued a presentment that described smuggling of undocumented immigrants as an “escalating threat.”

“(We) have concluded that the smuggling of illegal aliens not only endangers Floridians, but also generates huge sums of money for TCOs (transnational criminal organizations) which are used to further a host of criminal activities, notably drug trafficking and human trafficking,” the presentment, posted on the Florida Supreme Court website, said. “Additionally, the illegal aliens being smuggled into and within the state are put into a vulnerable position and are often exploited by criminals. This is particularly troubling when dealing with unaccompanied alien minors.”

The presentment came as lawmakers prepare for the 2023 legislative session, which will start in March, and as controversy continues to swirl about the DeSantis administration’s decision in September to transport migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

As part of the justification for the migrant flights, DeSantis pointed to a need to protect Floridians from such things as people transporting drugs into the United States.

DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who has long criticized federal immigration policies, requested impaneling the grand jury in June. The Supreme Court granted the request, with the grand jury impaneled in the 10th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.

A presentment is a formal statement, and the grand jury described the recommendations issued Tuesday as a “first” presentment, indicating more could be coming.

The grand jury called for expanding a human-smuggling law that says people commit third-degree felonies if they transport into Florida someone they know or should know is illegally entering the country.

The proposal would expand the law in several ways. For example, it would create a third-degree felony for a person who conceals, “harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection” immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

As another example, violations of the law would be second-degree felonies if the undocumented immigrants are under age 18, according to the proposal.

The presentment said the grand jury heard testimony from Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey and Bill Gladson, the state attorney in the 5th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

“While state and local law enforcement agencies have done their best to combat this escalating threat, it is clear that more needs to be done,” the presentment said. “Since the smuggling of illegal aliens into and within Florida involves multiple individuals, TCOs and other criminals, the human smuggling statute must be revised.”

While bills are only starting to be filed for the 2023 legislative session, the Republican-dominated House and Senate and DeSantis have passed a series of measures in recent years targeting illegal immigration.

For instance, lawmakers in 2019 approved a bill that included banning so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida. Also, during the 2022 session, lawmakers included a $12 million pot of money in the state budget for relocating migrants — a pot that the DeSantis administration tapped for the Martha’s Vineyard flights.

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