IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ron DeSantis pursues a new era of cruelty for undocumented immigrants

This new set of Florida laws could cost Ron DeSantis Latino evangelical support.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Midland, Mich., on April 6, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Midland, Mich., on Thursday.Chris duMond / Getty Images

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida has churned out one extreme right-wing law after another, often designed to stir up culture war controversies over identity. Now the state is poised to pass some of the most draconian anti-immigrant bills a state has enacted in recent memory. Local business leaders and Latino evangelical groups are pushing back against the proposals. But Florida Republicans seem set on crafting a new kind of surveillance state that encourages racial profiling and makes life for undocumented immigrants in the state even worse. 

The New York Times reports that the package of bills expected to pass in the coming weeks would constitute the harshest crackdown on undocumented immigrants in over a decade:

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; prevent undocumented immigrants from being admitted to the bar in Florida; and direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to provide assistance to federal authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.

On top of all this, DeSantis has called for scrapping undocumented students’ access to in-state tuition.

The sum effect of these laws is that undocumented immigrants — and anyone else who might be suspected to be one — would face new, intrusive levels of scrutiny and potential arrest in countless scenarios. Making it a felony to house, hire or transport an undocumented immigrant — punishable by up to five years in prison — could inspire a new wave of citizen surveillance, suspicion and severance of social ties from landlords, employers, colleagues, lawyers, roommates and neighbors. 

Latino religious groups in Florida have often, though not universally, supported DeSantis in the past. But they’ve spoken out against these bills, because they say they would face severe criminal charges for carrying out many of their basic functions as humanitarian organizations. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told NBC News that it would “criminalize the church’s work.”

“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 said.

One particularly cruel aspect of the new policies would be that undocumented immigrants might avoid going to the hospital out of fear of being identified.

One particularly cruel aspect of the new policies would be that undocumented immigrants might avoid going to the hospital out of fear of being identified. It’s not difficult to see how some undocumented immigrants could die after having hoped a life-threatening emergency might pass to avoid being flagged to the authorities.

Not too long ago, Florida was taking steps to become a more hospitable place for undocumented immigrants. For example, a number of officials in DeSantis’ own administration supported a 2014 law to give in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. And recently Florida businesses lobbied against and narrowed the scope of DeSantis' efforts to require Florida employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that new hires are in the country legally. (Big business' fondness for cheap undocumented immigrant labor isn't motivated by noble intentions, but it still has the effect of tempering some Republicans' crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.)

But for DeSantis and his GOP colleagues, there appears to be a willingness to anger some of their supporters to stake out a hard-line position on immigration. DeSantis sees immigration policy as an opportunity to flaunt right-wing nationalist bona fides, and to illustrate a take-no-prisoners culture war attitude that ambitious Republican politicians need to compete with 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump. 

Just like when DeSantis cruelly sent Venezuelan immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, there seems to be a refusal to admit undocumented immigrants’ contributions and humanity. The right wing clings to its narrative that undocumented immigrants bring little but crime to the U.S., even though that view has long been exposed as a noxious myth. Undocumented immigrants are a fact of American life, deeply interwoven with the American economy and society. But DeSantis and his ilk would rather score political points than ease their suffering.