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Faith Leaders Rebuke Florida GOP’s Ongoing Anti-Immigrant Attacks: “I’ll Go To Jail For … Helping A Kid?”

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and GOP lawmakers have been considering a pair of sweeping, anti-immigrant bills that civil and immigrant rights advocates have said would criminalize Floridians “who shelter, support, and provide transportation to undocumented immigrants, including those who have overstayed their visa or who have lived in Florida for decades and have US-born children.” This could even include their own undocumented family members, and could impose severe penalties on Floridians for carrying out the most everyday of tasks, like driving someone lacking the proper immigration status to work.

The measures, known as Senate Bill 1718 and House Bill 1617, could also punish Floridians for carrying out deeply personal tasks, like driving a loved one or friend to school, the doctor’s office, or church. The plans are being condemned by Latino evangelicals and other faith leaders around the state, who say the legislation stomps on their religious freedom and punishes them for carrying out the basic tenets of their faith, such as welcoming the stranger.

“The bill will ‘criminalize the church’s work,’ said Gabriel Salguero, pastor of The Gathering Place, an Assemblies of God congregation in Orlando, and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition,” NBC News reports. The proposal could actively impede ministering to migrant families, and even block churches’ humanitarian efforts, like driving someone to a food bank. “We have schools, we have Sunday school, we have church vans that bring them to worship, we have soup kitchens that we sometimes drive people to who are undocumented because they need food,” he told NBC News. “Sometimes we take them to their lawyer.”

Florida Republicans could also be criminalizing Father José Rodríguez of Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret. “We may, in good faith, find ourselves breaking the law because we’re in the business of helping people,” he told Orlando Sentinel. Helping people – now there’s a novel idea that DeSantis and the state legislature should maybe take up instead.

Community members and advocates have in recent days been rallying against the proposals, noting the harsh repercussions spread far beyond immigrant communities. “It’s going to be felt by all Floridians regardless of what their own opinions are on immigration because, at any given time in Florida, we are all surrounded by people that are from different countries,” Florida Immigration Coalition’s Anamaria Hernandez told local affiliate WESH. 

Republican lawmakers seem to be feeling some heat. The Orlando Sentinel reports that state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, the legislation’s primary sponsor, had apparently accused faith leaders of being misinformed. “As a Christian, I have great respect for the evangelical community,” he claimed. “Having said that, I suggest they read the bill for clarity.” But when questioned if faith leaders could face punishment for driving a member of their congregation to church, Blaise admitted they could. Maybe he should take his own advice and read the bill for some clarity. “If a church worker gives the person a ride, it could mean up to five years in prison and up to 15 years if the church staff member picks up a minor for a youth group gathering,” NBC News said.

The legislation has been condemned by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which called GOP efforts “an unprecedented intrusion.” But this is in no way the first time that DeSantis, a practicing Roman Catholic, and Florida Republicans have been condemned by faith leaders over their attacks against immigrant communities. 

Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski last year rebuked DeSantis for targeting the licenses of federally-funded shelters where asylum-seeking children are held while they wait to be placed with a sponsor. In another despicable attack that same year, DeSantis also claimed it was “disgusting” to compare Central American children who arrive at the southern border in search of safety with Cuban children who arrived here through Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s. 

“Children are children, and no child should be deemed disgusting, especially by a public servant,” Wenski said. For daring to defend the defenseless, the archbishop was then attacked as a liar by Christina Pushaw, the detestable DeSantis staffer who has been instrumental in also stoking hatred against LGBTQ communities. Pushaw also reveled in the outrage to DeSantis’ despicable transportation of unknowing migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last fall.

Sister Ann Kendrick, founder of Hope CommUnity Center and a local leader who aids newly-arrived Central American families, told the Orlando Sentinel that she frequently assists undocumented people, including children. “I’ll go to jail for… helping a kid?” she wondered. “Wow, isn’t that the American way?” The state of Florida not that long ago touted highway signs that read, “Florida Welcomes You.” But under the xenophobia of DeSantis and the Republican legislature, the message lately has been “Get Out.”