A bill in Florida that supporters say would crack down on illegal immigration in the Sunshine State has prompted concerns from some faith leaders that it could criminalize some ministries that serve the state's migrant population. The legislation comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis is widely expected to soon launch a bid for the Republican nomination in 2024.
The Florida legislature is considering a package of wide-reaching immigration measures that would seek to curb illegal immigration in the state. Part of that package, Senate Bill 1718, would make it a felony to shelter or transport immigrants without legal status into or within Florida, among other measures like prohibitions on hiring them or requiring hospitals to ask patients for their immigration status.
The bill is seen as likely to pass the Florida legislature, where Republican supermajorities control both chambers. DeSantis has backed the legislation. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about concerns with the bill among faith communities in the state.
Catholics and other faith communities in Florida have raised concerns that the bill could jeopardize some of their ministries, including rides to church services or to ministries that serve the vulnerable without regard to immigration status, such as soup kitchens and accommodations in homeless shelters. Protestant pastors in the state told Christianity Today in April that the bill has religious liberty implications, as it would make it a third-degree felony if a person "transports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has illegally entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the Federal Government since his or her unlawful entry."
The Catholic Church's catechism states that while a country has the right to regulate its borders for the sake of the common good, more prosperous nations "are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin" (No. 2241). In Matthew 25, Christ calls his followers to welcome the stranger, a call Catholic advocates say is pertinent to their work ministering to immigrants.
Michele Taylor, associate director for communications for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV News that "While supporters of the bill are rightly concerned about inaction on immigration policy at the federal level, the bill creates great harm by prohibiting activities that benefit society and aid vulnerable members of our communities."
"The legislation would be harmful to families and citizens, including families with mixed immigration status, who suddenly cannot bring a friend, a neighbor or a loved one to church, or to the grocery store or the doctor without risking imprisonment," Taylor said. "It essentially criminalizes the Christian call to charity and service, to love our neighbor and to serve the least of our brothers and sisters."
The bill's detrimental effects, Taylor said, would be "far-reaching," including to the state's economy.
Proponents of the bill describe that provision as an anti-trafficking effort. DeSantis has also cast the measure as a response to what he and other Republicans have characterized as a lax response to illegal immigration by President Joe Biden. Should DeSantis enter the GOP primary and win the nomination, the two Catholics would-be rivals in the general election, as Biden is expected to seek a second term.
In remarks to reporters in February when the bill was unveiled, DeSantis said, "Florida is continuing to crack down on the smuggling of illegal aliens, stopping municipalities from issuing ID cards to people here illegally, and ensuring that employers are hiring American citizens or those here legally."
Critics of the bill also say it could have negative implications for the state's economy, and for the ability of undocumented immigrants to provide for their families. On its website, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the bill would criminalize Floridians "who shelter, support, and provide transportation to undocumented immigrants, including those who have overstayed their visa or who have lived in Florida for decades and have U.S. born children."