By Lourdes Hurtado
Florida Republican lawmakers who supported Gov. Ron DeSantis' tough immigration law have called on immigrant workers not to leave the state, amid fears that a labor exodus could hit the local economy and multiple demonstrations against the new measure.
In a meeting Monday with religious leaders in the city of Hialeah, in Miami-Dade County, organized by the Association of Hispanic Ministers, lawmakers tried to assuage the fears of immigrants, employers, religious organizations and groups that defend the rights of this community, prior to the entry into force of the law, on July 1.
About 160 people attended the meeting, mostly ministers, pastors and community organizations seeking information on how the new immigration law — described by some as the toughest in the country — will impact how they serve their congregations, many of whose members are undocumented immigrants.
The law signed by DeSantis doesn't take effect until July 1, but its effects are already being felt in Florida's fields. Getty Images
"This is a law for political purposes, rather than a new public policy," said Rick Roth, Republican representative for the 85th district in the state House, during the meeting with religious leaders, who have been concerned about SB1718, which was signed into law by DeSantis after signing it on March 10.
"Farmers are angry that they are losing their workers," Roth told those present.
Many undocumented workers in the agriculture, construction and tourism sectors have left the state in anticipation of the law's entry into force.
Berta, a farmworker from the state, told Noticias Telemundo that "we thought we were going to South Carolina because they humiliated us, they slapped us to get us out of here."
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Congressman Roth asked the religious leaders attending the meeting to ask immigrants in their congregations not to leave the state. Roth and Rep. Alina Garcia, R-115th District, also present at the meeting, voted in favor of the bill.
"This bill is to scare people [undocumented immigrants] not coming to the state of Florida and I think it has done its job [fulfilled its objective]. This bill has no teeth," Garcia said during the meeting.
An activist who recorded the videos of the two lawmakers' statements during the event in Hialeah said she was shocked.
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María Bilbao, of the American Friends Service Committee Campaign, said that "it's like telling people: 'We are going to make your life a misery psychologically, with fear, we are not going to defend you [...], but stay because we need you.'"
Bilbao said the measure also encourages undocumented immigrants to be reported to immigration authorities.
Roth did not respond to interview requests for comment.
Lawmaker Alina Garcia said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo on Tuesday that the purpose of the meeting with religious leaders was "so that people don't continue with fear, because it has created [an atmosphere] of bad information."
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The representative said, speaking about the section of the law that includes penalties for people transporting undocumented immigrants, that this does not apply, for example, to churches. "This is for people who are trafficking human beings, bringing them into Florida."
According to Garcia, this law has not changed the issue of immigration at all, and insisted that "it is a law so that people know that the state of Florida is not a sanctuary state. We are not. If they're undocumented, we in Florida can't take them anymore. We don't want more illegal people coming to the state of Florida."
Asked what would happen when employers in Florida can't find the labor needed for their businesses, Garcia said, "I don't know, maybe we can look for some way, some kind of worker, we'll look for a way."
State Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, R-119th District, criticized his Republican colleagues for dismissing the law as a "scare tactic."
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"In no way do I share his opinion," Fernandez-Barquin told NBC News in a statement, adding that DeSantis' immigration law "focuses on law and order and ensuring that our state fills the space where the federal government has failed to act."
"I voted for this bill, I support this bill, and I applaud our governor for making this a priority," Fernandez-Barquin said.
The law enacted by DeSantis provides 12 million dollars to the initiative of relocation of migrants in other states, which he himself has promoted, and that last year materialized with the sending of a group of migrants who arrived in Texas to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, an action aimed at protesting against the immigration policy of the federal government.
It also prohibits local governments from funding organizations that issue identity documents to people who are in the country illegally and invalidates driver's licenses issued in other statesheld by unauthorized immigrants.
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It also requires hospitals that accept patients enrolled in Medicaid to include a citizenship question on admission forms, which critics of the new law say is intended to deter illegal immigrants from seeking medical care.
In addition, the governor himself described the text as a counterproposal to Biden's border policy: "We will continue to take action to protect Floridians from reckless federal open border policies," he said a few weeks ago.
On March 24, after months of expectation, DeSantis officially announced that he was officially joining the presidential race, and then making an official announcement on the social network Twitter, which was plagued by technical problems.