Florida GOP is on the verge of passing a Ron DeSantis-backed immigration bill

The sweeping legislation would give $12 million to the governor's program flying migrants to Democratic states, among other measures.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — At the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican supermajorities in the Florida Legislature are preparing to pass a sweeping immigration bill that would give millions of dollars to his controversial program transporting migrants to Democratic areas.

Over the past year, DeSantis has increasingly used immigration as a political cudgel to hammer President Joe Biden's southern border policies and build his own standing with the national conservative base in the run-up to his likely 2024 presidential bid.

The latest iteration in DeSantis’ push comes in the form of a 50-page legislative deal, SB 1617, filed Sunday night after weeks of negotiations between House and Senate Republicans.  

Republicans in the state House passed the measure out of committee along party lines on Monday. The proposal will get a Senate hearing on Tuesday, and is expected to get floor consideration as soon as later this week.

The measure would give $12 million to DeSantis’ migrant flight program, which received national attention in September, after the administration paid to fly 50 migrants, who were mostly from Venezuela, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a move supporters say was done to highlight the Biden administration’s failure at the southern border. A chorus of opponents said it turned vulnerable asylum-seekers into political pawns. 

The legislation, which received its first committee hearing less than 24 hours after it was filed, would also:

  • bar Florida local governments from spending taxpayer dollars on identification cards for people who can not provide proof of citizenship;
  • invalidate a driver’s license issued by another state to someone who can not prove their citizenship;
  • require hospitals that accept Medicaid to include a question on intake forms about the patient’s citizenship status;
  • remove a provision previously signed into law by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott that allows undocumented law school graduates admission to The Florida Bar;
  • increases penalties for human trafficking-related offenses to a second-degree felony;
  • and requires anyone in custody of law enforcement who is subject to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement immigration retainer to submit a DNA sample to a statewide DNA database.

Supporters of the plan said that opponents were acting in bad faith by mixing the idea of legal and illegal immigration.

“Let’s be clear … this bill is not addressing legal immigration, this is addressing illegal immigration,” said Republican state Rep. Chase Tramont. “And far too often people like to conflate the two.” 

Democrats said the bill was mean-spirited, and more broadly argued that immigration reform should be handled by Congress.

“This bill does not address the actual problem of immigration. It is a bad solution for a very real problem. Not just for Florida, this is a problem in our nation,” said Democratic state Rep. Christopher Benjamin. “We should be doing more to press our federal government to fix this problem. But this bill harms more than it helps.”

Democrats put forward a series of amendments to try and dull some of what they see as the bill’s most controversial provisions, but they were all easily dispatched by the House Commerce Committee’s Republican majority. 

“These amendments sometimes feel futile, but I am identifying all the points that could make the bill better,” said Rep. Dottie Joseph, a Democrat who acknowledges the proposed changes would not pass. “I really just want us to think about it.”

One of the bill’s more contentious provisions, as has been the case over the past few years, is whether to require all state employers to use E-Verify, a federal database used to check a potential employee’s eligibility.

Conservatives have long urged the state to require all employers to use the system, something dubbed “mandatory E-Verify.” But the state’s influential business lobby has successfully opposed that push, objecting over compliance costs and out of fear it could cost them low-wage workers.

In 2020, for instance, Florida tried to implement mandatory E-Verify but the proposal was watered down to require it only for government employers, not those in the private sector. The change came after an intense lobbying effort from the business sector.

This year’s bill would require employers with 25 or more workers to use E-Verify. Current law allows private employers to either use E-Verify, or the same documentation required for the I-9 process. I-9s are federal forms used by employers requiring them to explicitly state they reviewed documents that allow an employee to legally work in the United States. 

“The employer would have to take the I-9 form, they would enter it into the E-Verify system, which is very simple,” co-sponsor Kiyan Michael, a Republican who was endorsed by DeSantis, told the committee of how her bill would beef up E-Verify requirements. “The system will let them know almost immediately if that person is eligible to be employed.” 

Lobbyists for state business groups told the committee it was a step in the right direction, but said they wished the E-Verify exemption was higher than 25 people.

The consideration of the immigration deal comes with just two weeks left in Florida’s annual legislative session, a critical crunch time when high-profile priorities are pushed through. DeSantis, however, has largely been absent as lawmakers hash out those issues in Tallahassee.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has held events in places like New Hampshire and South Carolina, both early presidential primary states, and also spoke at the Heritage Foundation's 50th Anniversary Celebration leadership summit in Maryland. DeSantis is now on the first leg of an “international trade mission” that will bring him to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, DeSantis met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, a visit that was overshadowed by a clumsy answer DeSantis gave to reporters asking about trailing former President Donald Trump in recent 2024 presidential polling. DeSantis' poll numbers have dropped amid a wave of attacks from Trump, and criticism from Republican members of Congress.

The video of DeSantis answering the poll question went viral on social media and amplified DeSantis' fast-growing national reputation as someone with a palpably awkward personality.

“I’m not a candidate,” he said. “So we will see if and when that changes.”