TALLAHASSEE — Led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican with presidential ambitions, the Florida Legislature is considering a sweeping package of immigration measures that would represent the toughest crackdown on undocumented immigration by any state in more than a decade.
Expected to pass within weeks because Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, the bills are part of what Mr. DeSantis describes as a response to President Biden’s “open borders agenda,” which he said has allowed an uncontrolled flow of immigrants to cross into the United States from Mexico.
The bills would expose people to felony charges for sheltering, hiring and transporting undocumented immigrants; require hospitals to ask patients their immigration status and report to the state; invalidate out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants; and direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to provide assistance to federal authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
Mr. DeSantis has separately proposed eliminating in-state college tuition for undocumented students and beneficiaries of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, who were brought to the United States as young children. The tuition law was enacted by his predecessor Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator, in 2014.
The new measures represent the most far-reaching state immigration legislation since 2010, when Arizona, a border state that was the nation’s busiest corridor for human smuggling at the time, passed a law that required the police to ask people they stopped for proof of immigration status if they had a reason to suspect they might be in the country illegally.
“We need to do everything in our power to protect the people of Florida from what’s going on at the border and the border crisis,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference on Feb. 23 during which he unveiled his proposals and spoke from a lectern emblazoned with the words “Biden’s Border Crisis.”
Backers of the new bills say they are not opposed to immigration but are trying to make sure that newcomers follow the law.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to come here,” Debbie Mayfield, a Republican state senator, said during a hearing on one of the bills. “We have a process in this country. We’re not trying to hurt or harm people who are here legally.”
Critics warn the bills will sow fear, promote racial profiling and harm Florida’s economy, and the legislative push runs counter to a trend elsewhere in the country to integrate the nation’s existing population of undocumented immigrants, estimated at more than 10 million.
Over the last decade, and especially since the pandemic, even some Republican-led states have introduced policies to provide undocumented residents with health care, access to higher education, driver’s licenses and worker protections.
Arizona voters last year repealed restrictions on higher education for undocumented immigrants and adopted in-state tuition for everyone who attends high school in the state. The State Legislature is taking up a proposal to offer financial aid to such immigrants.
“There has been steady growth of inclusive policies across the country and the political spectrum,” said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center who tracks immigration legislation.
Governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Spencer Cox of Utah, both Republicans, recently called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, citing the value of foreign workers to their states. In March, Mr. Cox signed a law extending health coverage to all low-income children in his state, regardless of immigration status.
Texas is moving in the other direction, at least on the border. Republican state lawmakers have proposed a significant expansion in the immigration control program pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who, like Mr. DeSantis, is a Republican.
Draft legislation presented in March calls for the state to take on some of the authority now exercised by the federal government, creating a border police force and making it a state felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to illegally cross the border into Texas.
Texas has already deployed National Guard troops on the border and, along with Arizona, has bused newly arriving migrants to cities around the country.
After a record 2.5 million migrant interceptions at the border last year, both Republican governors have accused President Biden of losing control of the situation.
“When Biden continues to ignore his legal responsibilities, we will step in to support our communities,” Mr. DeSantis said in January.
Last year, the Florida governor commissioned two private planes to fly unwitting Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, fueling outrage and prompting lawsuits. In January, he declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard as vessels ferrying Cuban and Haitian migrants docked in the Florida Keys that month and in February.
Neither the state nor the federal government has data on how many undocumented immigrants reached Florida during the latest border surge last year, but there are signs that the state has been heavily affected.
As of March 31, the immigration courts in Florida had 296,833 cases pending, more than any other state, dwarfing New York’s 187,179 and Texas’ 184,867 cases.
State officials said health care for undocumented immigrants cost nearly $313 million during the 2020-21 fiscal year, a sum paid by local, state and federal governments.
Mr. DeSantis warned that continuing influxes threatened to increase crime, diminish jobs and wages for American workers and burden the state’s education systems.
Under the proposed new bills, a person could be charged with a third-degree felony for knowingly transporting, concealing or harboring undocumented immigrants, punishable by up to five years in prison. While sponsors have said the legislation is not intended to target ordinary Floridians in their day-to-day lives, its potential applications are broad, legal analysts said: An American adult child of an undocumented immigrant driving a parent, a lawyer driving a client to court or someone driving a sports team that had a player without U.S. legal status could be exposed to criminal charges.
Similarly, the law could also apply to a landlord who rents property to an undocumented family or someone who has an undocumented person living in their home, such as a housekeeper or caretaker.
“As the bill is written, there are no exceptions,” said Paul Chavez, a lawyer affiliated with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is preparing to challenge the legislation in court if it passes.
Enforcing these measures would open the door to racial profiling, critics said, as police officers are charged with determining who is documented and who is not.
“You are looking at a bill that creates an atmosphere where you could get targeted whether you are an immigrant, citizen or tourist,” said Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, the executive director of Hope CommUnity Center, a nonprofit in Apopka, Fla., that provides immigrants an array of social services. “You don’t know people’s immigration status by looking at them,” he said.
One of the most heavily debated provisions is one that targets hospitals, which would be required to collect data on the immigration status of patients and to submit it to the state. The law would not prohibit treatment, but critics warn that it would discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking care.
The legislation calls for new state penalties to be imposed on employers who hire immigrants without work authorization, and it is drawing opposition from the business community in a state struggling with a labor shortage and where the unemployment rate was 2.6 percent in February.
More than one in five Florida residents are immigrants, an estimated 800,000 of them undocumented, and 722,000 American citizens in the state live in households with one or more undocumented immigrants.
The state is home to a large senior population that relies on care often provided by immigrants, many of them undocumented; its agricultural sector employs many undocumented immigrants; and its tourism industry draws millions of visitors from around the world to Florida beaches, restaurants and theme parks, where service workers are often immigrants.
“What might make DeSantis look good with the extreme right in a national presidential election bid is just about the most destructive and hurtful thing he could do to his own state,” said Mike Fernandez, who runs a private equity group and is a member of the American Business Immigration Coalition, a national bipartisan group of business leaders advocating a cohesive national strategy on immigration.
Felice Gorordo, an entrepreneur in Miami who is trying to attract companies to Florida and create a tech hub, said the proposal to eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented students was counterproductive.
“We would be driving these students to other states when we need to do everything possible to keep our homegrown talent,” he said.
Unlike New York, Washington and Denver, which at different times have struggled to find housing or shelters for flocks of newly arrived migrants, there has been little evidence in Florida of migrants lingering on the streets or crowded into homeless shelters.
The Florida legislation, introduced on the first day of the session that ends in May, is expected to be fast-tracked by the Republican leadership.
“I wholeheartedly thank and commend Gov. Ron DeSantis for having the courage to lead on this issue,” said Blaise Ingoglia, the state senator who sponsored the bill that passed the Senate Rules Committee last month. “This problem is now at our doorstep, and Florida will not stand for it anymore.”
After the Biden administration expanded Title 42, a pandemic authority that empowers agents to swiftly expel citizens of several countries back to Mexico, the number of migrants intercepted by U.S. authorities at the border has plunged in recent months to the lowest levels since Mr. Biden took office.
Some Venezuelans who crossed the border before the expulsion policy was applied to them have reached Tallahassee, renting apartments a short drive from the State Capitol.
Erika Rojas, a Venezuelan American who runs a nonprofit, Hola Tallahassee, that assists newly arrived Spanish speakers, said many had found jobs cleaning offices, working in restaurants or doing construction work.
She scrolled recently through a string of messages in a WhatsApp group where job seekers exchange tips and those who have been in the state longer share information.
A Venezuelan chef wrote in the chat that he had 15 years of experience but was willing to work as a dishwasher. “The main thing is to get my start,” he said.
Another Venezuelan in the group wrote, “I’m an expert welder, and I’m at your service.”
Maria Virginia, 32, a lab technician in her hometown, Maracaibo, Venezuela, said she had been working nights, mopping floors and emptying trash bins at a hospital in Tallahassee.
By day, she has been taking an online class to become a certified phlebotomist, having applied for asylum and received a work permit.
“If I accomplish my goals, I’ll stay in Tallahassee,” she said.
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