Florida Latino religious groups alarmed by DeSantis-backed immigration bill

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Backlash from Latino evangelicals and others who minister to immigrants is growing against a bill that would make it a felony to transport people who may be in the country without legal status.

The legislation is part of an immigrant crackdown by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans in the state. But the bill's transportation provision has religious leaders and groups worried about how they will carry out their pastoral work and live their beliefs.

The bill, SB1718, proposed by Florida state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, includes a provision making it a third degree felony for anyone who "Transports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the Federal Government since his or her unlawful entry from another country."

The bill will “criminalize the church’s work," said Gabriel Salguero, pastor of The Gathering Place, an Assemblies of God congregation in Orlando, and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

"We have schools, we have Sunday school, we have church vans that bring them to worship, we have soup kitchens that we sometimes drive people to who are undocumented because they need food. Sometimes we take them to their lawyer," Salguero told NBC News.

The legislation was voted on in the Florida Senate Rules Committee in mid-March on a 15-5 party line vote.

Two Republican Latino senators on the committee, Sen. Ileana Garcia of Miami and Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez of Doral, supported the bill. A Latino Democrat, Sen. Victor Torres of Kissimmee, voted against it. The measure awaits a full Senate vote and is pending on the House side.

Garcia's office said she was not available for comment because she had traveled home from Tallahassee Thursday night, so was not in the office. A staffer referred NBC News to a news release she issued on the bill. Rodriguez's office also deferred to a news release.

Garcia and Rodriguez emphasized the problem of human trafficking in their news releases and stated that the bill would help address the problem. Both used the same bulleted list to highlight provisions in the bill. But neither included the transportation provision that has drawn opposition to the measure from the religious groups.

Garcia accused the "extreme left" and the media of lying about the bill. She stated she is proud of her record on behalf of immigrants and looks forward to more work on "issues that improve the quality of life for all our residents and protect the most vulnerable."

"Human trafficking is a serious problem that has been made worse by current federal policies that have encouraged caravans of migrants to make the dangerous trek to our borders, completely reliant on taxpayer funded social services," Rodriguez stated.

Many social services are not available to people without legal status, though children can attend public schools and some clinics provide health care without regard to citizenship or legal status.

Matthew Soerens, vice president of policy and advocacy at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization, said pastors know their congregants well enough to know who may have crossed borders unlawfully. If a church worker gives the person a ride, it could mean up to five years in prison and up to 15 years if the church staff member picks up a minor for a youth group gathering.

Soerens said even if bill sponsors and backers assure churches and religious groups the measure wouldn’t be used against them, most would likely be advised by their lawyers that they have legal liability, so churches and religious groups would not want to put themselves at risk.

Soerens noted that the bill specifies transporting migrants who have entered the country unlawfully without inspection, "so apparently they're not concerned about those who overstayed visas." An estimated 42% or more of people in the country illegally entered with a legal visa and stayed beyond its expiration date.

Many people who have been now allowed into the country under Biden's immigration policies are asylum seekers who have been "inspected" at a border port of entry.

Salguero said his church doesn't ask people if they are undocumented, but they do learn of people's status as do many other churches.

"There are over 3,000 Latino evangelical churches in Florida, that's not counting Latino Catholic churches and other Latino mainline (churches)," he said. Add in Haitian immigrants and churches that serve them, and it's clear that the state is heavily populated by immigrants, he said.

José Vega, a minister at Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville, said in an Evangelical Immigration Roundtable press call on March 30 that he wanted to express his "concern" about the bill. "For many years, I have had the liberty to show my unconditional love to people from over the world, serving them in different capacities and transporting them to multiple places," he said.

The proposal is something of a déjà vu, reminding many working on the legislation of a 2005 federal bill that became known by its sponsor’s name, former GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner. It also proposed making it a felony to assist immigrants. The legislation, which got U.S. House approval, triggered massive protests by many Latinos and others around the country on May Day 2006 and was opposed by religious groups and churches.

But the political landscape has changed since then. The GOP has shifted further to the right. With DeSantis increasingly looking like he will seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he's been pushing a very conservative agenda, including on immigration.

Last September, DeSantis sent two planes to Texas to pick up migrants there and deliver them to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Groups, such as the Salvation Army and Martha's Vineyard Island Clergy Association, were among those who helped the migrants, many who were asylum seekers and had been released to wait in the U.S. for their pleas to work their way through the immigration system.

The recent legislation and the support of some Latino Republicans earned them criticism and accusations of rejecting their heritage from Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago, a Cuban refugee who came to the U.S. as a child aboard the Freedom Flights. She called the bill and its House companion a “slap in the face to our immigrant families — and native-born Americans, who have welcomed immigrants into their lives. ...”

“I remember when the first Hispanic caucus went to Tallahassee for one purpose: to represent us,” Santiago wrote. “Now the heirs jauntily walk in the shoes of an immigrant hater and do his bidding without regard to the impact on our communities?”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com