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Republican legislators who backed DeSantis immigration law appear to downplay its potential impact

Mar 06, 2023

Florida legislators who voted for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stringent immigration law are trying to reassure immigrant residents in the Miami-Dade County area that they shouldn't fear the new law.

Republican state Reps. Rick Roth, Alina Garcia and Juan Fernandez-Barquin were invited to speak at a meeting Monday organized by the Hispanic Ministers Association of South Florida to discuss the law in Hialeah, the city with the country's second-highest percentage of Latino residents.

About 160 people attended the event, mostly ministers, pastors and community organizations seeking information about whether the policy change would have an impact on how they serve their congregations, which include people who would be directly affected by the law.

The sweeping immigration law DeSantis signed last month makes it a felony to "knowingly and willfully" transport an undocumented person into the state — including relatives and acquaintances. It also invalidates out-of-state driver's licenses issued to immigrants who lack legal status and requires private businesses with 25 or more employees to use a federal system known as E-Verify to confirm whether new employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

Many undocumented workers in the agriculture, construction and tourism industries have left the state in anticipation of the law's going into effect next month — with others left wondering whether they should also move elsewhere.

Video clips members of the Florida Immigrant Coalition recorded at Monday's event were posted on social media by Thomas Kennedy, a spokesperson for the immigrant rights organization.

The short videos captured remarks in which Roth and Garcia seemed to downplay the severity of the law they voted for.

"This is more of a political bill than it is policy," Roth said in one clip.

In another clip, Roth told attendees: "This bill is 100% supposed to scare you. I’m a farmer, and I’m mad as hell. We are losing employees. They’re already starting to move to Georgia and other states. It's urgent that you talk to all your people and convince them that you have resources in their state representatives and other people that can explain the bill to you."

Roth did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Garcia also characterized the law as one "basically to scare people from coming into the state of Florida, and I think that it's done its purpose."

She added: "This bill doesn't really have any teeth."

In an email, Garcia responded with the following statement: "It is unfortunate that opponents of the bill are disingenuously misleading people to believe things about this bill that simply are untrue. While Florida values the immigrant community, we had to take action to counteract the failures of the federal government.

"We want people to go through legal channels to be here, work here, and prosper here," Garcia added.

Kennedy characterized the Republican legislators at the event as "people who are not trusted messengers on what's on the bill because they voted for it, and now they have a political motivation to try to spin it, because there is so much anger and indignation over what they did."

Kennedy said he has already learned of multiple families with mixed immigration statuses who have upended their lives and made arrangements to move out of Florida before July, decisions that have caused ripple effects across industries that rely on immigrant labor.

Fernandez-Barquin criticized his Republican colleagues Tuesday for dismissing the law as a "scare tactic."

"I, in no way, share their opinion," Fernandez-Barquin said in a statement, adding that DeSantis’ immigration law "is centered on law and order and ensuring that our state fills the void the federal government has neglected to act upon."

"I voted for this bill, support this bill, and applaud our governor for making this a priority," Fernandez-Barquin said.