How Ron DeSantis’s ‘chilling’ anti-immigration law hurts Florida workers

A federal judge appointed by Donald Trump is set to decide this week whether to uphold his injunction against a critical part of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s contentious anti-immigration legislation, following a significant courtroom defeat for the extremist Republican last month.

Miami district court judge Roy Altman has called for written arguments from both sides after ruling that a key provision known as the “human smuggling” clause in DeSantis’s sweeping immigration bill exceeded the state’s jurisdiction.

Section 10 of the law criminalizes the transportation of undocumented individuals, even by US citizens, and was promoted by DeSantis as a robust response to what he termed “Joe Biden’s border crisis.” However, it drew sharp criticism from advocates for Florida’s large immigrant labor force for its perceived harshness.

The law also triggered diplomatic tensions with Mexico, which accused DeSantis’s administration of discriminatory practices and racial profiling.

“This heartless and clearly unconstitutional law has had devastating effects on our plaintiffs, as well as on farm workers and immigrants throughout the state,” said Spencer Amdur, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigration rights project, representing the Farmworker Association of Florida.

“People have been unable to visit their families within Florida and in other states; they’ve been prevented from going to work and providing for their families; they’ve been unable to practice their religion. These were all harms our plaintiffs suffered while the law was in force, harms that the judge cited in blocking it. It was a clear and direct ruling from the circuit court that states have no business passing laws like this.”

With the injunction in place, law enforcement, including the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), can no longer stop and detain drivers suspected of transporting undocumented passengers. Following the law’s implementation on July 1 last year, approximately a dozen individuals were arrested, including Raquel López Aguilar, a 41-year-old Mexican citizen who has been detained in Hernando County Jail since August after being stopped by an FHP officer while driving a minivan carrying immigrant roofers.

Aguilar’s case, facing up to 20 years in prison on four counts of felony human smuggling, has become a rallying point for critics of the law, including the Mexican government, which has been funding his legal defense. Juan Sabines Guerrero, the Mexican consul in Orlando, did not respond to inquiries from the Guardian but previously told 10 Tampa Bay in April: “We will win this case. Nobody is illegal in this world.”

Altman, a member of the Federalist Society born in Venezuela, nominated by Trump to the federal bench in 2018, will reconsider his initial ruling later this week following a subsequent decision, with a June 6 deadline for comments on its scope.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has vigorously argued that any injunction should apply only to parties directly involved in the broader legal challenge to the law, which has yet to be fully litigated.

Attorneys representing a coalition that includes the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Immigration Council, and Americans for Immigrant Justice insist that a statewide permanent injunction is necessary.

“I believe the court agreed with us that a statewide injunction is appropriate at the preliminary stage, and that’s what we will advocate for during the trial,” said Paul Chávez, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s immigrant justice project.

“However, there has been controversy surrounding statewide injunctions, prompting the court to request further briefing. My impression is that Altman simply wants to ensure the clarity of his ruling. I don’t get the sense that he has changed his mind, but he recognizes there is current debate on this issue.

“The Farmworker Association has members across the state who are part of this lawsuit. Ideally, the injunction will apply so that no one is subject to prosecution.”

Chávez recounted stories of immigrants frightened by the consequences of DeSantis’s law. Many of these individuals are among Florida’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers, an estimated 60% of whom are undocumented.

“Many farm workers left Florida and informed us they would not return. So the broader impact is economic, as having workers unwilling to return to the state affects the labor force,” he said.

“But beyond that, there is also the cruelty of the law, affecting people who usually travel in and out of Florida. It has had a chilling effect on travel. One of our plaintiffs is a US citizen in a mixed-status family. She frequently drives between Florida and Georgia and feared she could face felony charges just for visiting her family.”

Altman’s injunction marks another in a series of legal setbacks for DeSantis’s aggressive agenda in Florida, much of which was implemented shortly before his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Last month, another Trump-appointed district court judge, William Jung, dismissed the state’s challenge to a new federal law blocking it from removing children from lower-income households from a popular health insurance program.

In April, The Guardian reported that over 22,500 children in Florida had been disenrolled from the Children’s Health Insurance Program since January 1, despite a federal law ensuring continuous eligibility with 12 months of healthcare coverage if at least one premium payment is made.

In March, a settlement between DeSantis’s education department and civil rights lawyers removed contentious elements of Florida’s controversial “don’t say gay” law, which was criticized by the LGBTQ+ community. Under the agreement, teachers and students can again engage in discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity outside formal classroom instruction.

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