New Florida Laws Aim to Keep Illegal Immigrants Off Roads, Deported Felons Off Streets
New Florida Laws Aim to Keep Illegal Immigrants Off Roads, Deported Felons Off Streets

By John Haughey

WINTER HAVEN, Fla.—Florida lawmakers have adopted some of the most restrictive illegal immigration laws in the nation in recent years and continued to do so in 2024 by approving measures that tighten identification requirements, punish repeat unlicensed driving with prison, and make being in Florida after being deported a felony.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bills—which take immediate effect—on March 15, during an hour-long conference at Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Winter Haven.

He was joined by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, state Rep. Kiyan Michael, and Nikki Jones, whose husband was killed in a 2019 hit-and-run car crash caused by an illegal immigrant.

“If you go back six or seven years in the state of Florida, we were not leaning against illegal immigration at all,” Mr. DeSantis said. “In fact, we were one of the weaker states with respect to illegal immigration. Since we’ve come in, we’ve done things like ban sanctuary cities, worked in harsh penalties for people that are bringing fentanyl into our community and … using things like E-Verify.”

In May 2023, shortly before formally announcing he was running for president, Mr. DeSantis signed what he called “the strongest anti-illegal immigration bill in the nation.”

Among provisions adopted in 2023’s Senate Bill 1718 are expanded E-Verify to private employers, increased penalties for human smuggling, and more funding to send more illegal immigrants to more sanctuary jurisdictions.

“The package that we did last year … even The New York Times admitted it was the strongest immigration legislation in the entire country,” the governor said. “So, we’re proud of that. We’re proud that we have really stepped up to empower people like Sheriff Grady Judd to keep his community safe here in Polk County.”

Manuel Orrego-Savala, of Guatemala, who was living illegally in the United States and driving without a license or insurance, pleaded guilty in July 2018 to driving drunk when he was in a collision that killed Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson and his Uber driver (Indiana State Police via AP, File)

Keeping Illegals Off the Roads

During their recently concluded 2024 session, Florida lawmakers added another round of legislation imposing further requirements, restrictions, and penalties on illegal immigrants.

House Bill 1449, filed by Ms. Michael, increases penalties for driving without a valid driver’s license, including a mandatory jail sentence after a third repeat offense.

Florida banned issuing driver licenses to undocumented immigrants in 2022, the governor said, but some local governments and non-profits have accepted driver licenses issued by other states to illegal immigrants.

“We don’t recognize driver’s licenses from other states that have been issued to illegal aliens. So, that’s smart,” Mr. DeSantis said. “But you still have people that come and drive without a license. This is going to be a deterrent for illegal immigration into the state of Florida.

“You come here,” he said, “you’re not getting a license. We’re not recognizing your California license or the one you may have gotten in a sanctuary state. I mean, this is something that has shattered the lives of families with these folks doing what they’re doing.”

Ms. Michael’s family is among those whose lives were shattered when an illegal immigrant, without a license, without insurance, slammed his vehicle into her 21-year-old son while he was headed during his lunch break to a bank to cash a paycheck … “and killed him” in 2007.

The driver was a “twice-deported illegal alien who had been in the Jacksonville area for at least seven years” and “couldn’t understand the traffic signs,” she recalled, noting he was only sentenced to two years in prison before being deported and is “probably back in Jacksonville right now.”

The loss of her son inspired her to run for the state legislature in 2022. HB 1449 is a bill she’s pushed since her first day in Tallahassee.

“People want to give them driver’s licenses. I don’t know if they thought about that they probably cannot read our signs,” Ms. Michael said. “Why would they want people who are not here legally to have driver licenses?

“Why are illegal immigrants feeling as though they have the same rights and privileges as American citizens? There is no ‘right’ to come into this country. They should not have the same rights.”

SB 1036, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, was unanimously approved in the Senate in a 32–0 March 1 vote and overwhelmingly endorsed in the House on March 6 in an 83–20 tally.

The bill restricts documents that can be used to receive a state-issued ID card and boosts penalties for illegal immigrant felons who illegally reenter the country after being deported.

“What you find in some of these really significant incidents where people are getting raped or murdered is it’s not only an illegal alien, but it’s somebody that has already been deported from this country, and then comes back to commit crimes again,” Mr. DeSantis said. “So in the state of Florida, if you have been deported, and you come to this state, and enter our state, and you’re here illegally, and you commit crimes, we are throwing the book at you.

“You’re going to regret coming to the state of Florida. So I’m happy to sign that into law.”

SB 1036 also includes a provision that elevates felon classifications for “a person committing a crime that benefits, promotes, or helps a transnational criminal organization” with “transnational criminal organization” defined as an organization that “routinely facilitates the international trafficking of drugs, humans, or weapons or the international smuggling of humans.”

“Floridians are almost dangerously naive and unaware of the magnitude and the malevolence of the illegal immigration industry” orchestrated by transnational criminal networks,” Ms. Nunez said.

“They’re using people and children as commodities,” she continued. “They’re bringing dangerous criminals, dangerous weapons, and dangerous drugs into the country, smuggling in enough fentanyl to kill upwards of a billion people.”

Florida law enforcement officers, state police, Florida National Guard, and Florida State Guard are deployed at the border in Texas. Florida, along with other Republican states, has been forced to take action because the federal government under the Biden administration has done little to address what it alone doesn’t see as a national security crisis, Ms. Moody said.

“The breakdown of the border, throwing open the gates, has allowed those criminals to infiltrate our country,” she said.

“We know there is no doubt criminals have come into our country or are coming into our country, criminals related to transnational criminal organizations. In fact, even those organizations that have ties to ISIS” are sending potential terrorists and criminals in the United States.”

Sheriff Throws the Flag

Mr. Judd said since 2018, at least 377,000 Americans have been killed by fentanyl smuggled across the southern border, yet “some people, some of the mainstream media, some of the politicians, some of the elites, are telling us every day there isn’t a border crisis. Have y’all heard that? There isn’t a border crisis?”

He pulled out a square pennant that said “BS Flag” and waved it. “I say BS, so I’m pulling the ‘BS Flag’ on that,” he said, passing it to Mr. DeSantis.

“Signed by Grady Judd,” the governor mused. “This could be worth something on eBay.”

On March 13, Mr. DeSantis directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, the Florida State Guard, and state law enforcement agencies to send 250 officers and soldiers to southeast Florida “to protect our state” from “a potential influx of illegal immigrants” from Haiti seeking to escape the violence there.

The governor also authorized the state to deploy air and sea units to the waters of the Keys and South Florida to “supplement the under-resourced U.S. Coast Guard’s interdiction efforts.”

“We cannot have illegal aliens coming to Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said in a March 13 X post.

With the order, 39 Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 23 Florida Fish & Wildlife officers with eight seacraft, 48 National Guardsmen with aircraft and drones, 30 state troopers, and 133 members of Florida’s 12,000-soldier State Guard will join the Coast Guard and other agencies patrolling Florida’s Atlantic coast.

During a House Armed Services Committee March 12 hearing on Western Hemisphere national security challenges, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.), a former Miami-Dade County mayor, pressed Assistant Secretary of Defense Rebecca Zimmerman about how the Biden administration would respond should there be a “maritime mass migration” from Haiti.

“At the moment, we have not yet seen large numbers, what we would characterize as a ‘maritime mass migration,’ but we are alert to that possibility,” Ms. Zimmerman said.

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