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House moves on plan to check the immigration status of workers

A Mexican immigration officer talks with migrants.
LM Otero
Opponents of the bill said it would hurt businesses and immigrants and is rooted in DeSantis’ political ambition.

The Florida House on Monday began moving quickly on a plan that would stiffen requirements on businesses to check the immigration status of workers, crack down on bringing undocumented immigrants into the state and require hospitals to collect data about whether patients are in the country legally.

The Republican-controlled House Commerce Committee voted 13-5 to approve the plan (HB 1617), which emerged as lawmakers entered the next-to-last week of the annual legislative session. The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee is scheduled Tuesday to take up the Senate version of the bill (SB 1718).

The bills have reignited debate about what the state’s role should be — if any — in addressing illegal immigration. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, has frequently criticized federal immigration policies and pushed for the state to take action.

“We simply have got a crisis in our nation, and we cannot as lawmakers ignore that there’s a crisis,” Rep. Kiyan Michael, a Jacksonville Republican who is one of the sponsors of the House bill, said Monday.

But opponents said the bill would hurt businesses and immigrants and is rooted in DeSantis’ political ambition.

“I’m tired of this body leaning into these culture wars, as opposed to dealing with the real issues that we have for Floridians that are already in this state that are U.S. citizens, lawful-permit residents,” Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said. “We have real needs right here.”

DeSantis and the Legislature have passed a series of changes in recent years to target illegal immigration, including a 2019 law that banned so-called sanctuary cities. A federal appeals court this month tossed out a constitutional challenge to that law.

The state also drew national headlines last year, when the DeSantis administration flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The House bill includes $12 million for similar efforts during the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Among other key parts of the bill:

— All businesses with 25 or more employees would be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers. Since 2021, such businesses have been required to use E-Verify or what are known as I-9 forms.

— Toughen criminal penalties for transporting undocumented immigrants into Florida. While the bill indicates the changes are aimed at curbing human smuggling, opponents raised the prospect of people and groups such as churches being prosecuted for transporting immigrants into the state.

— Require hospitals to ask patients about whether they are U.S. Citizens or are in the country legally. Hospitals would be required to submit reports about the responses to the state.

— Require law-enforcement agencies to take DNA samples from people being held on federal immigration detainers. The samples would be sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The bill drew opposition or concerns from a wide range of groups, such as Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

For example, Adam Basford, a lobbyist for Associated Industries, raised concerns about the E-Verify requirement, including potential penalties for businesses. He also said E-Verify is not always reliable.

Some other critics of the bill said they were worried that it would lead to immigrants not seeking medical care because they would be asked about their legal status.

“Anyone having a health-care emergency shouldn’t have to think twice about seeking health care,” said Aurelie Colón, a lobbyist for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

Michael said she doesn’t think the bill will hurt businesses. Meanwhile, Rep. Joel Rudman, R-Navarre, said he was “flabbergasted” by deference given by the bill’s opponents to people in the country without authorization.

“Let’s be very clear, there is a difference between doing things the right way and the legal way and skipping the process altogether and going about it through an illegal manner,” Rudman said.

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