Florida’s new DeSantis-backed laws address immigration, Medicare and more

NEW RULE IN FLORIDA: Hospitals that accept Medicaid must ask patients if they are citizens or legally in the United States

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Employers who hire immigrants in the country illegally will face tough punishments and gun owners will have more freedoms when more than 200 new Florida laws take effect Saturday, many of which Gov. Ron DeSantis will highlight as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

DeSantis has taken a hard line on illegal immigration as he campaigns, saying he’ll finish the Mexican border wall his one-time supporter, Donald Trump, promised to build. He’s also carried out political gimmicks like flying immigrants from Texas to blue states, supposedly before they can get to Florida.

The new employer penalties are a chance for DeSantis to show he doesn’t just talk tough on illegal immigration, but he’s put in place what some critics say the harshest state law in the country.

DeSantis has largely echoed the border policy of Trump, whose endorsement propelled DeSantis to the governor’s office in 2018. DeSantis is now the former president’s leading competitor for the White House.

The new law expands worker verification requirements, among other provisions. The governor’s office blames the Biden administration for what it says is a crisis at the southern border.

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“Any business that exploits this crisis by employing illegal aliens instead of Floridians will be held accountable,” said DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern.

But in a state where the largest industries — tourism, agriculture and construction — rely heavily on immigrant labor, there are concerns that the economy could be disrupted when employers are already having a hard time filling open jobs. Florida’s unemployment rate is 2.6%.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago, the American Business Immigration Coalition’s Florida director, said there are 400,000 “undocumented immigrants” working in the state and far fewer applicants than jobs.

“We are in dire need of workers,” especially in construction, the service industry and agriculture, he said. “So there is a lot of fear from across the state … that this new law will actually be devastating.”

The law forces any company with 25 or more employees to use E-Verify to document new hires’ eligibility to work or face a loss of business license or fines of $1,000 per day per employee.

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The law also forces hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients if they are citizens or legally in the United States and voids drivers licenses issued by other states to people in the country illegally.

Protesters have rallied around the state. Dozens of people on Friday waved signs and Mexican, Cuban and American flags in front of the historic Capitol. Rubith Sandoval, 15, helped organize the protest. Her family moved from Mexico and now owns a farm in Quincy.

“We work hard in the fields. We pick tomatoes, we pick strawberries, we pick watermelons, oranges, and who’s going to do that now?” Sandoval said. “My parents now have documents, but they still haven’t forgotten how it was not to have documents.”

Republicans have a supermajority in the House and Senate, and only one Republican opposed the legislation. Given DeSantis’ power and reputation for being vengeful, there has been little vocal opposition among GOP elected officials about the new immigration policy.

But that doesn’t mean all Republicans are supporting it, either

Independently-elected Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, a Republican, said illegal immigration is a federal problem.

“Our state solutions are limited, not particularly effective, and have unintended consequences,” Simpson said in an email. “I think the Legislature’s work to tackle illegal immigration is necessary, whether or not it is effective is yet to be seen.”

DeSantis will also be able to tout expanded gun rights under a new law that allows anyone legally able to own a gun to carry it concealed in public without a permit. While concealed weapons permits will still be issued, those choosing to carry without one won’t be subject to a background check or training.

The law doesn’t ease background checks on gun sales that already require one. Another new law prohibits credit card companies from tracking gun and ammunition sales to prevent them potentially using the data to flag people who make large purchases.

Florida has also banned colleges from using state or federal funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs, a consistent DeSantis target, and schools will be prohibited from requiring teachers and students to use pronouns that match someone’s gender identity.

Beginning Saturday, Chinese nationals will be banned from purchasing property in large swaths of the state. A new law applies to properties within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of military installations and other “critical infrastructure” and also affects citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. But Chinese citizens and those selling property to them face the harshest penalties.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing in federal court to stop the law, but a judge won’t consider an injunction until nearly three weeks after it takes effect. The U.S. Department of Justice provided a brief to the court saying it believes the law is unconstitutional.

“DOJ has weighed in because Florida’s law is blatantly unconstitutional and violates the Fair Housing Act. Their brief underscores just how egregious” the law is, ACLU lawyer Ashley Gorski said in an emailed statement.

DeSantis defended the law using his campaign Twitter account, saying President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland are siding with the Chinese Communist Party.

“I side with the American people,” the tweet said. “As governor, I prohibited CCP-tied entities from buying land in Florida. As president, I’ll do the same.”

One new law Democrats and Republicans agreed unanimously on is a sales tax exemption on baby and toddler products, including diapers, strollers, cribs and clothing. The tax package also includes exemptions for dental hygiene products and gun safety devices, such as trigger locks.

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