Activists brace for ‘draconian’ immigration bill to become Florida law

Since a bill designed to overhaul the state’s immigration system was introduced in March to widespread criticism and fear among immigrants’ rights groups, activists in Central Florida have been bracing for its passage in the Republican-dominated legislature.

At Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, organizers have been hosting Know Your Rights seminars in English, Spanish, Creole and Portuguese for weeks, preparing hundreds of immigrant families for what will come if Senate Bill 1718 becomes law, said Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, executive director for the community center.

“Also, we’re making sure they know that Hope — independently of what’s ultimately going to happen — we are here for the community and are going to continue doing the work we have done so boldly for the last 50 years — even if that means going to jail,” he said. “We know this is life and death and what’s really important is for the community to know that they are not abandoned.”

On Monday, more than 1,000 people from across the state brought together in a partnership of about 50 organizations including Hope CommUnity Center, Planned Parenthood and Come Out With Pride Orlando are expected to rally at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando at 5 p.m. in protest of the bill, which they expect will become law because of a Republican supermajory in the legislature.

“We see this as a moment to empower each other and to tell Tallahassee that this is what Florida looks like,” said Sousa-Lazaballet, who is now an American citizen but spent 15 years undocumented after leaving Brazil more than 20 years ago. “We are multiracial, we are diverse and we’re fighting for our right to exist and to dream and to live. ... We belong here. This is our home.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill would require hospitals to collect immigration status from patients they treat, impose verification requirements on employers who hire immigrants, ban immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from practicing law and prevent counties and municipalities from funding community programs that create identification cards for people who are undocumented.

If an undocumented person is pulled over while vacationing in Florida and is driving with a license issued legally by another state, they will face criminal penalties, according to the bill, which will make out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to undocumented people invalid in Florida.

Ingoglia denies that his bill is an attack on all immigrants but rather one meant to specifically target immigrants who enter the country illegally. He said the purpose of the bill is to force the federal government to act and fix a broken national immigration system.

“Where is the incentive to come over legally when states will create IDs for them, allow them to have driver’s licenses, give them jobs, free education and free healthcare?,” Igoglia said Friday afternoon.

But Democrats said the bill will have no impact on the federal immigration system, questioned if it was constitutional for a state to make its own immigration law and added that the bill would only serve to cause harm to undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families, especially if undocumented people refuse to seek healthcare when hospitals begin to ask about immigration status.

At a Tuesday Senate committee meeting, Sen Lori Berman, D- Palm Beach, said when hospitals start to collect immigration status, people could die.

“I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to cost money because people wait and they come when they’re really, really ill as opposed to taking advantage of preventative care and it could cost lives because people are waiting so long because they’re going to come to a hospital when they know that all of a sudden they are going to be asked about their immigration status,” Berman said.

Though the bill is still headed toward passage, a provision that would have made it a felony to have an undocumented person in your car or home was struck from the bill after clergy members from across the state said the bill as written would make felons of pastors and nuns for driving immigrant families to church.

That was removed with an amendment, though it will still be a felony to transport an undocumented person into the state. Immigrant activists said this would still criminalize normal activities like church-sponsored trips and field trips to tour colleges out of state.

Father José Rodríguez of Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret in Orlando, said even with the change, he can’t support the bill.

“Tell me, how much injustice is too much injustice?” he asked. “How much pain is too much pain? How much discrimination are we going to accept as acceptable? They reduced the pain but there is still pain in the bill.”

During public comment at Tuesday’s hearing, no members of the public spoke in favor of the bill.

Instead pastors, activists, health care providers and immigration experts called the proposed bill “draconian” and urged senators to vote against it. Several attempted to appeal to Igoglia’s and the other Republican senators’ Christian faith and said that Jesus would have come to the aid of immigrants, not created more punitive laws.

But that did nothing to stop the passage of the bill in the Senate.

“I know that a lot of the faith-based community come up here and they have a lot of anxiety over this bill and some were even up here quoting scripture and I will tell you that Jesus told us to follow the law,” Igoglia said.