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Don't Think You'll Escape DeSantis' Immigration Dragnet Just Because You Are an American
His sweeping bill will go after Florida churches, employers and hospitals
Wikipedia Commons. Gage Skidmore
Next week, the peerless Linda Chavez, a Republican turned #NeverTrumper and a contributor to The UnPopulist, will debunk the silly notion floated by some on the right and the left that President Joe Biden is just as bad on immigration as Donald Trump. Biden’s track record is not perfect, to be sure. But to compare it to Trump’s is a calumny.
But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is another matter. In order to advance his yet to be announced presidential bid, he’s putting together a portfolio of immigrant bashing that could make Steve Miller green with envy. Miller, if you recall (or maybe you’d rather not), was Trump’s notorious immigration czar who separated little kids from migrant parents and put them in cages as a border enforcement measure among many, many other cruel policies.
DeSantis already made a name for himself as a Miller protégé when he lured asylum seekers from Texas into a private plane and transported them to Martha’s Vineyard to teach bleeding heart liberals who support more welcoming immigration policies a lesson. And now at the end of the month he is poised to sign the artlessly titled— “An Act Related To Unlawful Immigration”— whose aim is to make the life of undocumented immigrants—and anyone who comes in contact with them—as miserable as possible.
To that end, the bill will invalidate driver’s licenses that other states have issued to undocumented folks. That means that an undocumented resident with a valid DC license won’t be able to drive through the Sunshine State. The provision likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, which directs states to recognize the laws, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state, and will almost certainly face a legal challenge.
DeSantis’ bill will also bar Dreamers (those who were brought to this country without papers as minors) with valid work permits under the DACA program obtain a license to practice law in the state. About 40,000 undocumented students are enrolled in higher education in Florida and this bill would cut off one career option for them. Why DeSantis is specifically targeting law degrees is not entirely clear but my guess is that it has something to do with denying undocumented folks the legal expertise to defend themselves and each other in court. This measure comes on top of a separate effort by DeSantis to cutoff instate tuition for DACA recipients.
All of this is a naked attempt to court the MAGA base. But DeSantis is not content to simply slam the undocumented population—inside and outside—the state to do so. His bill also would also go after everyone—legal residents, citizens—who help the undocumented. For truth in advertising, Bulwark’s Tim Miller brilliantly suggests, the bill should be renamed the “Miep Gies Criminalization Act of 2023” after the woman who hid Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis for two years.
After all, it contains some of the toughest anti-harboring provisions in the country. It would make it a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison, to transport into or within Florida an individual who the person “knows, or reasonably should know” is undocumented. This goes much further than the federal law that bans such activity “if it is in furtherance of violation of immigration law.” But the Florida bill, according to the National Immigration Forum, would make it illegal to provide transportation and temporary housing services to undocumented immigrants in the state for any reason at all. Churches and faith groups whose very mission requires providing transportation to parishioners without regard to their status will now be exposing themselves to legal jeopardy if they give undocumented folks so much as a ride to services or go to the doctor or supermarket. In a word, the bill criminalizes charity. But if that is not draconian enough, consider what’ll happen to mixed-status families which contains some legal and some undocumented members, hardly an uncommon thing among Hispanic communities. It’ll become difficult for all of them to even drive together in the same vehicle without the legal ones courting jail (and the undocumented ones of course deportation).
In addition, the bill will stiffen the penalties on employers that hire undocumented people, even imposing the so-called business death penalty by revoking their business licenses. Shutting down American businesses is a curious way to protect American jobs but, truth be told, many other states have tried this idiocy before Florida. Arizona, until recently Ground Zero for draconian immigration enforcement, has already been there and done that with its 2010 Legal Arizona Workers Act. Its effect on the economy was so devastating that the state was forced to stop enforcing the law.
But perhaps DeSantis doesn’t care because he plans to be out of the gubernatorial mansion and in the president’s house by 2025 (although right now that seems like wishful thinking given his current polls numbers compared to Trump).
Nor does his bill just stop with all this. It would also require hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect the immigration status of all patients—natural born Americans, naturalized Americans and legal residents—and share it with authorities.
Here’s the thing though: That citizens would eventually be ensnared in a restrictionist regime should come as no surprise to anyone. The rights and liberties of citizens and non-citizens are inextricably enmeshed and you can’t go after the latter without also going after the former. Indeed, assaulting the liberties of citizens is a feature not a bug of aggressive immigration enforcement. Why?
As I have argued before, Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek famously argued that when government interferes with the peaceful, voluntary activity of individuals to achieve some collectivist end it puts its country on the Road to Serfdom. It matters little whether these ends are socialistic ones such as equality through income redistribution—or conservative ones such as cultural preservation by restricting trade and immigration. The fact of the matter is that if these restrictions leave individuals substantially worse off, they will find a way to circumvent them—unleashing all kinds of unintended consequences.
But the government's failure to achieve its ends will not be perceived as evidence that there is something wrong with these ends—that perhaps they are out-of-sync with the legitimate aspirations of people. Rather, the failure will be blamed on an insufficient use of force in achieving ends that are otherwise good. Thus, an initial round of coercion inevitably spawns ever more draconian rounds, putting the country on the path to "serfdom"—or a police state.
But the question is why does government coercion inevitably have to escalate? Why doesn't the initial crackdown succeed?
The reason is that when laws deem acts that have actual victims as "crimes," they are for the most part self-enforcing. The government has strong buy in from the public and the vast majority of people obey them spontaneously and automatically. Indeed, most people don't go around killing, stealing, pillaging and raping. So authorities have to go after only a minuscule number of violators, which in functioning polities is a manageable task.
However, it is hard to obtain that kind of buy-in for victimless crimes that are crimes only because the government decides to treat them as such. Too many people are either indifferent to these laws— or profit by subverting them or actively oppose them.
Think about it this way: If enough Americans really didn't want to have anything to do with immigrants, immigrants wouldn't come because they couldn't survive. They wouldn't be able to get jobs, fall in love with Americans, get married, have kids. They'd be shunned. But that is not the case. For every immigrant, there are a whole host of Americans who benefit from his/her presence. So in order to enforce this rule of law, authorities can't rely on voluntary compliance. They have to resort to an ever-escalating, disproportionate and therefore lawless use of force against Americans themselves. As London School of Economics' libertarian political theorist Chandran Kukathas notes, "Immigration controls are not merely border controls but controls on the freedom of the population residing within those borders.” You can’t control outsiders without also controlling insiders.
Kukathas has compared immigration restrictionism to apartheid in South Africa and I would also compare it to Jim Crow. What's common to apartheid, Jim Crow and restrictionism is the logic of human control.
Apartheid and Jim Crow were of course characterized by strict restrictions on the movement and employment of blacks. But the government couldn't just ban blacks from taking certain jobs or engaging in certain activities without also controlling the whites that wanted to hire them or marry them or engage in other activities with them. Hence in South Africa and Jim Crow intermarriage bans affected not just blacks but also whites. In South Africa, the government started monitoring white newspapers, books, films and music to make sure they were not soliciting blacks or advocating on their behalf in defiance of the state's wishes. In Jim Crow, it wasn't only blacks who were thrashed and beaten and imprisoned they worked in white establishments—these establishments were fined and vandalized too.
A crackdown on immigrants to be truly effective won’t spare citizens. Vast swaths of the country will get caught whether Trump or DeSantis is POTUS.