ABOVE: Venezuelan migrants pray at the camping site outside the Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Florida lawmakers have passed SB1718, a sweeping immigration bill aimed at penalizing undocumented migrants. Republicans control a supermajority in the Florida legislature and have touted the measure as anti-illegal immigration while Democrats consider it anti-immigrant.
Some Florida pastors and evangelical groups challenged early drafts of the bill, citing religious liberty concerns. Specifically, they pointed out that the measure would make incidental transportation of people who are undocumented immigrants a third-degree felony offense.
Immigrants from around the world are flooding into Florida right now and many churches have stepped up their ministries to serve these newcomers.
Rev. Dale Schaeffer is superintendent for the Florida District of the Church of the Nazarene. He says over 50 percent of their churches are non-Anglo and that caring for immigrants is an outgrowth of the denomination’s emphasis on compassion.
“Many of our churches have transportation ministries. They take people to doctor’s appointments, they help get them to school. Many of our churches provide transportation to and from worship,” he said. “We don’t ask people their immigration status.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce his presidential candidacy in the coming weeks, has made immigration a top priority. He has argued that the bill would help to reduce illegal migration. Later amendments partially addressed the religious liberty concerns, by limiting the felony charge to only those who transport an undocumented migrant into the state.
The broad-sweeping measure cracks down on illegal immigration on multiple fronts. It expands requirements for businesses with more than 25 employees to use E-Verify, a federal program that determines if people can legally work in the U.S. The bill also mandates tough restrictions on I.D. cards and drivers licenses for those who can’t prove citizenship and requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients about their legal status.
The bill’s sponsor, state senator Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), hopes the legislation will become a model for the country. “It should be a blueprint for the other 50 states,” he said.
In recent weeks, some pastors had spoken out against the bill alongside the Evangelical Immigration Table.
Matt Soerens, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a faith-based non-profit, said he’s grateful that the bill was amended around religious liberty protection but concerned that it was initially disregarded.
“I’m troubled that it took the outspoken advocacy of Christian pastors to flag that churches should be able to minister freely to all, without being at risk for imprisonment for performing basic ministry functions like driving someone to church,” he said.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. DeSantis is expected to sign it.