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DeSantis's Controversial Migrant Relocation Bill Passes Into Law

Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

You've probably heard of Ron DeSantis, Florida's famous—perhaps more often infamous—Republican governor. Very recently, he's been making legal headlines alongside DisneyDisney, and . . . Disney. But even before the nation tuned in to the Floridian Fight of the Century, DeSantis had been busy making all manner of controversial policies. We at FindLaw have covered a number of his gubernatorial decisions, from the "Don't Say Gay" bill to opposing masking in schools during COVID to signing the Heartbeat Protection Act that restricts abortions. And with the 2024 elections on the horizon, the governor has his eyes on the Oval Office, having already amassed more campaign funds than Trump, by some metrics.

With immigration such a hot-button issue for Republicans, it's no surprise that someone with presidential goals would conjure up a platform on immigration in preparing to run for office. So back in March, DeSantis pushed a bill into state Congress, one that would enact a "migrant-relocation program." Two months later, it has just passed into law in Florida. Let's cover the basics of this new immigrant-unfriendly policy, and what we can expect going forward.

DeSantis's Migrant Relocation Program

Filed March 7 in the Florida Senate, the text of the bill SB 1718 would create a program dedicated to migrant relocations in the governor's office, and fund it with $12 million.

Who should be concerned? Well, the law largely focuses on undocumented persons in the U.S. If you or a loved one were to be caught without proper documentation to your lawful citizenship, resident, or immigration status in the country, this law is aimed at making your day-to-day life significantly harder. At the very least, take caution if you live in or plan to pass through Florida. Below are some of the key restrictions for immigrants that the law sets out:

  • Immigrants who don't provide "proof of lawful presence in the United States" will essentially no longer be able to obtain a government ID. (Section 1.)
  • A variety of drivers licenses and other permits issued out-of-state to undocumented immigrants will no longer be valid within Florida. (Section 3.)
  • Hospitals that accept Medicaid will now be required to collect patients' immigration statuses on intake forms and other records—even if the patient isn't paying with Medicaid. (Section 5.)
  • Penalties will be imposed on employers who hire an undocumented person without first verifying their eligibility for employment. (Section 7.)
  • Businesses with more than 25 employees will be required to use a federal database called E-Verify to determination a person's eligibility for employment. (Section 7.)

But unfortunately, even those that live outside of Florida aren't safe from this new law. Notably, the new law gives Florida the power to transport migrants—even those located outside the state—anywhere in the U.S. Why? Some speculate that the bill was "meant to quell legal questions" raised in 2022 by DeSantis' transportation of migrants from various areas of the country to other parts of the U.S. DeSantis had made headlines last fall when he used Florida taxpayer money to send Venezuelan asylum seekers in San Antonio, Texas to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

But how did Florida have the jurisdiction to intervene in migrants originating in a completely different state, let alone send them to yet a third state? Major news outlets seem to be unclear about this question. From the very little information Florida officials seem eager to divulge, some suspect that the mission was meant to be covert, even illicit. Apparently, at least some of the relocation operations were being conducted by Florida authorities without the knowledge of state counterparts in Texas and Massachusetts. Though Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, publicly voiced his support of DeSantis's move after the fact, he had apparently not been given a heads-up before it happened. Nor had Massachusetts. Representative Dylan Fernandes of Martha's Vineyard accused DeSantis of "hatching a secret plot to send immigrant families like cattle on an airplane," denouncing the move as an "incredibly inhumane and depraved thing to do."

DeSantis claimed he was responding to the federal government's ineffective immigration policies in his decision to relocate the migrants.

A Political Ploy With Dangerous Consequences

The bill passed the Senate last week. Shortly after, on Tuesday, the Republican-dominated House also voted in favor of it. The bill will now be signed into law by DeSantis himself, expected to take effect on July 1.

DeSantis has framed the bill as a reaction to what he sees as "the Biden administration's failure to secure our nation's borders" and handling of immigration issues with "reckless federal open-door policies." In February, he Tweeted: "I am glad to have signed legislation to continue the program of transporting illegal aliens to sanctuary jurisdictions. I thank the legislature for this valuable tool."

A widespread concern of the law's opponents is that the requirement of declaring one's status on official government records (such as in hospital intake forms) will dissuade undocumented people from seeking vital medical care out of fear of outing themselves. Florida Democrat Rep. Susan Valdes called the bill out as "politically driven" and "an anti-immigration bill that will hurt and even kill undocumented immigrants."

Influx of Immigrants on the Horizon

The issue of migrants and asylum seekers in particular is about to be more salient than ever, as a pandemic-driven suspension of asylum rights known as "Title 42" is set to expire. This temporary measure was passed by the Trump Admin. at the beginning of the COVID outbreak, and has been allowing Feds to expel migrants to Mexico without the chance to seek asylum—which they previously had legal recourse to do, at least in theory. The order is set to lift on May 11, the day that the White House has set the COVID public health emergency to "officially end." Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, has said that border crossings have already risen from around 5,200 per day in March to about 7,200. A border official estimated that after Title 42 is lifted, such crossings could jump to 10,000 per day.

Last week, the Biden Admin. announced a series of actions that it plans to take in response to the expected increase in immigration after May. The Department of Homeland Security announced that they will dedicate specially trained asylum officers to new refugee centers in Guatemala and Colombia in an effort to create more legal recourses for migrants. The goal is to provided new channels through which migrants may seek lawful relocation to the United States.

While both Republicans and Democrats are anticipating an imminent rise of undocumented people into the country, it appears that DeSantis is showcasing a staunchly Conservative stance on immigration to appeal to the political Right as his race for President looms closer.

Know your legal rights—read more about immigration, asylum, and deportation at FindLaw's Learn About the Law resource pages:

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