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To keep immigrants from fleeing, Florida GOP focus on immigration law loopholes

Florida lawmakers say SB 1718, a new anti-immigration law set to take effect on July 1, was written to scare migrants from moving to the state. Now, they're trying to convince people to stay.
Lynne Sladky
Florida lawmakers say SB 1718, a new anti-immigration law set to take effect on July 1, was written to scare migrants from moving to the state. Now, they're trying to convince people to stay.

Republican lawmakers in Florida are scrambling to convince established immigrant workers who already have jobs to stay, while making it inhospitable for newly arrived migrants.

Florida Republicans who voted to pass the state's imminent anti-immigration laware trying to curb a potentially disastrous mass exodus of undocumented residents by touting the legislation's many "loopholes."

GOP Rep. Rick Roth, a third generation farmer, told NPR on Tuesday that state Senate Bill 1718, which goes into effect on July 1, was designed to "scare migrants." But he admitted that he and his colleagues were unprepared for the destabilization it would cause among the state's more established immigrant communities.

Roth and a handful of other Republicans, including state representatives Alina Garcia and Juan Fernandez-Barquin, are scrambling to allay fears of job losses or deportation, which they say are already driving workers out of the state.

"It's very dangerous for agriculture. We desperately need more legal workers and this is going to make it worse," he warned.

Among the legislation's many provisions is a new mandate for all businesses with 25 or more employees to run new hires through E-Verify, a database that tracks whether individuals are legally able to work in the U.S.

It also limits social services for undocumented immigrants, allocates millions more tax dollars to expand DeSantis' migrant relocation program, and requires hospitals that get Medicaid dollars to ask for a patient's immigration status. Another provision makes it a human smuggling felony to transport an immigrant who has not been "inspected" by authorities into Florida. The latter is striking deep fear among mixed-status families who may travel across state lines together.

But by delving into the bill's details in public forums, Roth said, he hopes to persuade long-time immigrant residents who already have jobs not to flee the state because the law "is not as bad as you heard."

He added: "The bill really has a lot of loopholes in it that gives you comfort. And the main purpose of the bill is to deter people from coming and to tighten the enforcement in the future."

Had the bill been intended to be fully enforced, it would have included funding for enforcement, according to Roth. "So that's why I'm trying to tell people that it's more of a political bill than policy."

During a faith-based event addressing the implications of the new law on Monday, Roth was captured on video urging attendees not to leave the state despite the bill's intimidating language.

"This bill is 100 percent supposed to scare you," Roth said. "I'm a farmer and the farmers are mad as hell. We are losing employees that are already starting to move to Georgia and other states. It's urgent that you talk to all your other people and convince them that you have resources, state representatives, other people that can explain the bill to you."

At the same event, Rep. Garcia, a Cuban immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a 2-year-old, said the new law has already "done its purpose" of preventing new arrivals across the state.

"This bill really doesn't have any teeth," she added.

Neither representative addressed questions about what undocumented workers might do if they were to get laid off from an existing job after the law goes into effect.

When asked about provisions in the bill that would make it a felony for mixed-status families to travel into Florida together, Roth suggested it would be unlikely that anyone would be charged.

"I think people are are extrapolating the situation into the worst case scenario," he said.

Garcia and Fernandez-Barquin did not immediately respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.