Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law late last week banning so-called sanctuary cities, where local agencies are barred from aiding federal immigration enforcement, even though Florida has no current sanctuary cities to ban. The newly minted law also requires that local government agencies actively support federal immigration agents' efforts, which experts warn stands to harm public safety and the Florida economy, and comes at a time when many across the nation are debating whether local law enforcement and other employees can legally assist federal agents' efforts to detain and deport immigrants.
On Friday, DeSantis signed the SB 168 Federal Immigration Enforcement bill, which passed by a 68–45 vote in the state House and a narrow 22–18 vote in the state Senate. "This is about public safety, not about politics," DeSantis said in a press release. "We must do everything within our power, and use all the tools available to us, to ensure that our communities are safe."
The practical reasons for the ban on sanctuary cities were not immediately evident. "All jurisdictions in Florida already complied with the requirements of federal law," explains American Civil Liberties Union of Florida staff attorney Amien Kacou.
While there are no sanctuary cities in Florida, there have been jurisdictions that have withheld support from Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to overarching legal concerns. The new law compels local authorities to comply with all so-called detainers or requests that local authorities continue to hold an immigrant to assist ICE with attempts to seek the immigrant's deportation.
"SB 168 does much more damage than simply cracking down on so called 'sanctuary policies,' as defined by the bill. It also aims to compel local jurisdictions to provide their 'best efforts'—i.e. to allocate additional resources—to supporting immigration enforcement activities in general," Kacou says. "Before SB 168, local law enforcement in Florida also retained the ability to exercise their judgment and their discretion when it came to arresting people for ICE. SB 168 now deprives them of this ability."
Supporters of the states' right to establish sanctuary policies, and opponents of DeSantis' call for local support of federal immigration agents' efforts, brandish a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, Arizona v. United States, in which the majority ruled that it is unconstitutional for local police to aid federal immigration agents. To do so, the justices ruled, would be for local authorities to meddle in a matter of federal jurisdiction. But now the Supreme Court, significantly reshaped by two President Donald Trump appointees, is set to take up another case that could revisit the interpretation of the constitutionality of such collaborations.
"SB 168 creates a new definition of 'sanctuary policies,'" says Alana Greer, co-founder of legal advocacy group Community Justice Project. "Alachua County, for instance, has refused to honor detainers in the past because of serious constitutional concerns that SB 168 overlooks. Even counties that currently honor the ICE requests, like Miami-Dade, will lose their ability to reverse course."
In the immediate, experts say that the brunt of the controversial bill will be borne by Florida immigrants. Because the law requires that local law enforcement act as assistants to federal immigration agents, immigrants will find it more difficult to come forward when they fall victim to crime. "[P]rovisions, like the 'best efforts' clause are bound to create confusion and arbitrary enforcement by local police," Greer says. "This instills fear in our communities and stops people from trusting public institutions, putting everyone's health and safety at risk."
"This new law will only make it easier for thugs, bullies, and criminals to abuse persons who fear immigration authorities," says Juan Carlos Gómez, director of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at Florida International University. "People will be even more afraid to reach out to law enforcement, despite representations by persons in favor of this legislation. This is law is misguided."
But the impact of the bill won't only be on immigrants, analysts warn.
The American Business Immigration Coalition, together with New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and bipartisan U.S. mayors launched by Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch, released a study in March showing that if just 10 percent of Florida immigrants left the state as a result of the ramped up push to deport immigrants, that would cost Florida over $120 million in taxes and $3.5 billion in gross domestic product, "threatening the economic prosperity and safety of all Floridians."
The bill has changed to some degree since the publication of the study, including the striking of proposals to impose a $5,000-a-day fine for local governments with sanctuary policies and to build a portal that would allow people to report local officials and agencies for failing to abide by the law. "Thanks to strong pushback from business and advocates, the final bill that the governor signed into law Friday was heavily watered down," says Rebecca Shi, director of the ABIC. Nonetheless, she adds, "SB 168 is an unfunded mandate that will deputize local police as immigration officers and incur a hefty economic cost to key Florida industries."
Experts blasted the DeSantis administration for moving forward with a bill that appeared to privilege Trump administration immigration policy over concerns for the state's safety and livelihood. "It's incredibly disturbing that this bill was passed despite the reams of research and lived experience of so many Floridians showing the harm it will undoubtedly cause," Greer says. "Our own research has shown that Miami-Dade County alone has spent over $17.3 million in corrections costs alone since adopting the ICE detainer policy SB 168 requires. There is no real public safety or fiscal justification for SB 168: At the bill's core is the intent to separate families and push black and brown immigrants out of our communities."
Immigrant rights advocates also disagreed with DeSantis' claim that SB 168 is apolitical, amid the White House's ongoing attempts to ramp up deportations and Trump's continued vitriol against immigrants. "SB 168 is a clear attack on immigrant communities that furthers white supremacist goals," Greer says. "It makes clear what side of history our governor wants Florida to be on, and the fight that is required of the rest of us."
Trump tweeted his support for SB 168, claiming that—although it was enacted in a state whose leadership already opposes sanctuary protections—the law was a manifestation of growing opposition to sanctuary policies in states like California, and suggesting that similar measures in other states would soon follow.