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Some DeSantis fans who help migrants feel torn by Florida’s new rules

HIALEAH, Fla. — When Pastor David Monduy heard last year that migrant families fresh from the U.S.-Mexico border had nowhere to live in Florida, he transformed his conservative evangelical church into a shelter.

He allowed migrants to sleep on air mattresses in the Sunday-school classrooms, bathe in portable showers next to the “God Is Love” sign in the parking lot and borrow bicycles to ride to work.

So, he was appalled last month when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new state law expected to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to work or seek medical treatment in Florida.

Monduy and many other Latino pastors voted for the governor and support strict enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border hundreds of miles away, but they and members of their congregations feel compelled to help migrants in their communities, regardless of their legal status.

“I can’t turn my back on someone who needs food because they don’t have documents,” Monduy, who still supports DeSantis on many issues, said in a recent interview. “He’s making a mistake.”

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Starting July 1, Medicaid-funded hospitals must ask patients whether they are in the United States legally and report the cost of treating undocumented immigrants to the state. The law also requires businesses with 25 or more workers to enroll in the federal E-Verify program to screen out immigrants who are unauthorized to work. And while some states issue driver’s licenses to people who are not in the country legally, Florida’s new law prohibits using them in the state.

DeSantis, a Republican who is running for president and seeking to outflank former president Donald Trump and other rivals for the GOP nomination, has signed a law considered one of the nation’s strictest state-level immigration crackdowns. The governor said the law discourages migrants from settling in Florida and straining state resources, but civil rights advocates who plan to challenge the law in court say it could lead to harassment of state residents.

DeSantis’s immigration agenda shows the complexities and conflicts of immigration politics in Florida, a state with a large and growing population of residents from other countries, and offers a look at the governor’s view of immigration and what he might attempt if he became president.

Florida is home to 770,000 undocumented immigrants, in a state of 22 million people, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in D.C. They account for nearly half of all workers in the state’s farming and related industries, according to the nonprofit Florida Policy Institute. Others work in fields such as construction, child care and tourism.

How Gov. Ron DeSantis deploys state police to enforce political agenda
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DeSantis defended the law at a recent news conference, saying it is better to have a workforce in the state legally than to rely on unauthorized workers.

“Florida law is that you have to be here legally to be able to be employed,” he said. “You can’t build a strong economy based on illegality.”

Some of the law’s penalties do not kick in until 2024, such as fines for bosses who hire undocumented workers and felony charges for employees who use fake identification to get jobs.

But the law quickly expands penalties for smuggling migrants into Florida, which supporters said targets people who sneaked into the country. Opponents of the law said that could lead to wrongful arrests because the U.S. government enforces federal immigration laws, not local police, and it can be difficult to parse who is in the country legally or not.

Advocates and religious leaders say some immigrants are already wondering if it is safe to visit Florida, while others are considering fleeing the state.

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“There’s a lot of fear, a lot of confusion,” said Agustin Quiles, director of government relations for the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Councils and Evangelical Institutions, a network of about 2,500 churches statewide that lobbied against the bill.

DeSantis representatives did not grant requests for an interview.

On his campaign website, DeSantis said his Florida policiesincluding mandating E-Verify — are part of his expectations for the rest of the country. He also says he would “shut down” the southern border, without saying how, and build a longer wall to deter illegal crossings from Mexico.

Polls show that border security and immigration enforcement resonate with Republican voters, and DeSantis has a history of embracing hard-line policies. He was a member of the House of Representatives in 2013 when the Senate approved a bipartisan immigration bill that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. In his recent book, DeSantis said he and others fought to prevent the bill from getting a vote in the House. He wrote that immigrants in the country illegally should be repatriated instead.

During his first term as governor, he signed laws that banned sanctuary cities that aid immigrants and required county jails to volunteer to serve as immigration agents. He also deployed law enforcement officers to help out at the border and drew scrutiny for transporting migrants from Texas to affluent Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

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A lawyer and a sheriff help Martha’s Vineyard migrants get a ‘bit of justice’

The newest law, passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, is narrower than what DeSantis called for in February. He wanted to repeal tuition breaks for undocumented college students and introduce tough penalties for anyone who shelters or drives migrants inside Florida.

State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a former Republican Party state chairman who shepherded the final bill for DeSantis, said the measure should be a model for the rest of the nation. The senator has rejected claims that Republicans were demonizing immigrants.

“That is not the case,” he said during a Senate committee hearing on the bill in March. “We are demonizing illegal immigrants.”

DeSantis easily won reelection last year, including in Democratic-leaning Miami-Dade County, which is majority Latino. But some analysts say the governor’s immigration policies might not translate well to the national stage, where DeSantis will have to court more moderate voters in the general election should he become the Republican nominee.

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Immigration crackdowns have backfired for Republicans before, leading to Democratic gains in once-red states. A 2010 immigration law in Arizona that authorized police to check the immigration status of people they detained galvanized Latino voters in that state and led to the recall of the bill’s sponsor. A 1994 ballot initiative in California that sought to shut undocumented immigrants out of schools and hospitals drew outrage and voter registrations.

Critics say DeSantis is playing politics with the livelihoods of people who fled poverty or authoritarian regimes in Latin America and elsewhere in hopes of building a better life in the United States. They say he aims to look tough because polls show the leading Republican candidate for president in 2024 is Trump, who made immigration the center of his agenda, including separating migrant children from their parents and erecting a wall at the southern border.

Advocates for immigrants said the law could endanger migrants’ health by scaring them away from going to hospitals and posing intrusive questions about their legal status.

Republicans “found a bunch of different ways to make life harder on immigrants,” said Paul R. Chavez, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center and SPLC Action Fund.

A person’s immigration status can take months or years to sort out as they apply for residency or defend themselves in immigration court.

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The complexity of immigration status in Florida was apparent in the long line of people outside federal immigration court one recent day amid the glittering skyscrapers, palm trees and reflecting pools in downtown Miami. Some were legally seeking asylum but were not yet permanent residents. Others were U.S. citizens trying to prevent their relatives from other countries from being deported.

James Smith, 44, an emigrant from Haiti, said he had temporary protected status, a category created by Congress to allow foreigners to stay because it is too dangerous for them to return home. Gangs are rampant in Haiti, and the president was assassinated in July 2021. Nevertheless, Smith’s wife, Marie, 38, was facing deportation from the United States because she arrived after the November 2022 cutoff to apply for that protection.

“This is my life, apart from God,” he said, gesturing to his wife and children. “Anything that happens to her, happens to my heart.”

At Monduy’s church on a wide, sunbaked avenue in Hialeah, where most city residents are Latin American immigrants, church members said the DeSantis approach to immigration caught them off guard. Many favor his conservative views, particularly his support for abortion restrictions, but they also care for the more than 20 migrants sleeping in the Sundatallah school classrooms at night, helping them to find work so they can strike out on their own.

Danay Armas, 44, a church volunteer wearing a T-shirt reading, “Jesus Loves Me,” said the Florida immigration law did not reflect her Christian values of welcoming newcomers.

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“I’m a Republican and everything,” said Armas, a Cuban immigrant and a naturalized citizen. But “if he’s not in agreement with the law of God, then I can’t be in agreement with him.”

Later that day, about 200 people poured into Iglesia Rescate for nearly two hours of singing and praying for DeSantis to back down on his original proposal. The church’s name in Spanish means “rescue.”

In the crowd were Mary Chavez, 44, and her husband, Yovany Hernandez, 45, a carpenter. The couple, Cuban nationals who arrived in the border city of Del Rio, Tex., in 2021 with their two sons, now 22 and 18, said they were well on their way to starting a new life in the United States.

Chavez, a former nurse, said she had worked on a bone-marrow transplant team but could never get ahead in Cuba. They left for South America four years ago, testing out life in Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, Peru and finally in Chile, where they lived for two years. Then Joe Biden became president and, with few prospects for gaining permanent residency in Chile, they saw that migrants were getting into the United States.

Relatives have helped her to study nursing in hopes of restarting her career. Her family is applying for permanent residency. “This is the best country in the world,” she said, beaming.

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She said she had hoped the governor would welcome migrants who are willing to work hard. “We came here with the desire to prosper,” she said. “I want to work.”

Monduy said he had hoped for a similar future for other migrants in his shelter. In March, he joined caravans of Latino church pastors in Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers against the bill, and in May, he and about 1,000 other church leaders signed a letter urging the governor to veto it.

He also led his church in prayer for DeSantis — whom he still supports — to change his mind.

Monduy said he has reached out to church leaders in other states to see whether they would take in the families in his shelters. They include a family of four from Venezuela whose children, ages 7 and 3, play games on tablets while their parents worry about where they can afford to live.

Monduy said churches in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia have offered to accept the migrants, though nobody has left yet.

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“They were happy to know that at least they have a solution,” he said. “If they have to leave before the 1st of July, they have a place to go.”

Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

Washington Post » World

Published: 2023-06-14 11:30:23

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