Latino faith leaders continue pressure against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ immigration bill

'This legislation, if adopted, would incite fear and create barriers of needed care that our church immigrant and refugee ministries engage,' reads a letter signed by more than 1,000 Latino pastors, faith leaders and congregants.

People demonstrate outside the Florida Statehouse in February 2022 to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that jeopardizes foster care licenses to those sheltering unaccompanied migrant children. The demonstration was spearheaded by the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelical Institutions. Photo courtesy of Agustin Quiles

(RNS) — Latino faith leaders continue to push Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to reconsider a sweeping immigration bill that, among other things, invalidates driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants in other states.

A latest effort includes a petition — spearheaded by Evangélicos for Justice — that has garnered more than 1,000 signatures from Latino pastors, faith leaders and congregants who are urging DeSantis to veto the bill, known as SB 1718.

This action comes just days after the Florida Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval for the bill that now heads to the governor’s office to be signed into law.

“This legislation, if adopted, would incite fear and create barriers of needed care that our church immigrant and refugee ministries engage. Through this legislation, the State of Florida is creating barriers to churches from fulfilling their mission to welcome and care for immigrants,” said the petition.

This latest letter, which includes more than 20 pages of signatures, has been submitted to the governor, said Agustin Quiles, a director of government affairs for the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelical Institutions. 

Signatories include leaders like Bishop Ángel Marcial, president of the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelical Institutions, which represents more than 2,500 churches and organizations across the state; the Rev. Abner Adorno, superintendent of the Assemblies of God’s Florida Multicultural District; and the Rev. Ruben Ortiz, global coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Latino evangelical pastors and faith leaders have staged demonstrations outside the Florida State Capitol to pray and advocate for immigrants who will be impacted by the bill. They’ve delivered handwritten letters to the governor and have sought to meet with Senator Blaise Ingoglia, who is sponsoring the bill.

The measure expands requirements for businesses with more than 25 staffers to use the federal E-Verify to check if employees can legally work in the U.S. It allows authorities to charge people with human trafficking if they knowingly transport an undocumented immigrant across state lines. The bill also requires hospitals receiving Medicaid to inquire about citizenship on intake forms. 

Latino pastors have expressed fear they could get arrested simply for serving immigrant communities. Many churches provide food and shelter for those in need, which can include immigrants and unaccompanied immigrant children. Pastors often take ailing congregants to the hospital. Congregations travel to worship retreats, and church vans frequently pick up and drop off church members.

The bill has been amended to ensure human smuggling charges only apply to those transporting people from outside the country to Florida, as reported by the Pensacola News Journal

Though a relatively small demographic, Latino evangelicals are a fast-growing faith group in the United States and one that 2024 presidential campaigns will work hard to capture. However, many in the community caution that they are not easily swayed by traditional right-left arguments, even as more than half of Florida’s Latinos voted for DeSantis’ reelection last year. 

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, wrote in a May 2 article for Newsweek that he shares the governor’s concerns about illegal immigration but noted that “this particular bill is not the solution.”

Rodriguez wrote that this piece of legislation “has the potential to jeopardize hard-won pro-life, pro-family, and pro-religious freedom victories in the long term.”

As a California pastor, Rodriguez urged DeSantis to “abandon this bill altogether” to avoid what happened in his state when Republican lawmakers in the 1990s pushed Prop 187 legislation that prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing public services. The measure passed and was blocked by a federal judge, and voter registration for the Democratic Party surged.

Rodriguez added: “Pastors and church-based volunteers have no interest in helping people violate immigration laws. But we do want to proclaim the gospel and ‘make disciples of all nations.'”

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