Latino pastors want Florida lawmakers to reject a GOP immigration bill
Latino evangelical pastors from across Florida have expressed concern that a Republican immigration bill would make it impossible for them to care for their congregants without breaking the law.
“If a police finds me carrying [undocumented] youth, then I could be charged with a felony, and I could be in jail for five, ten years because of that," said Jimiro Feliciano, senior pastor at Rosa de Saron Church, an Assembly of God church in Fort Meyers.
Feliciano said he voted for Gov. Ron DeSantis and now he wants the governor to veto SB 1718 if it makes it across his desk. "He's done great work," Feliciano said. "This proposal, it really surprised me."
The legislation contains several provisions aimed at deterring undocumented immigrants from remaining in the U.S. illegally, such as forcing Medicaid-accepting hospitals to ask about patients' immigration status, making it a felony to transport undocumented immigrants within the state and increasing penalties on private employers that hire undocumented workers.
More than three dozen evangelical church leaders spoke out against the legislation during a press conference outside the State Capitol on Monday before delivering handwritten letters to DeSantis’ office and meeting with the bill's sponsor.
Feliciano’s community in Lee County was devastated by Hurricane Ian. He says many of the workers helping with the recovery are immigrants, some of whom might not have legal status. The legislation would make it harder for them to stay employed, he said.
“People from out of town or people who don’t have status —undocumented — they have to do the job that nobody is doing to rebuild our community."
The clergy members at the Capitol were with a coalition of Latino evangelical bishops and pastors called the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Councils and Evangelical Institutions.
Augustine Quiles, director of the coalition's governmental relations and community affairs, says their only agenda is to care for the most vulnerable.
“We have real young people, real children that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, they live in fear every day of being separated from their parents," Quiles said. "We’re here for families. We need the governor. We need the legislators to stand behind us."
The coalition of Latino pastors supports other Republican-backed bills, including the school voucher expansion that DeSantis signed into law on Monday.
Exit polling from the 2022 governor’s race shows 58% of Latino voters chose DeSantis over Democratic challenger former Congressman Charlie Crist. Several pastors at the Capitol said they voted for DeSantis and members of their congregation also voted for him.
“The Latino vote matters," said Benjamin Feliciano, who's also a pastor at their church. "We stand with a loud voice and say ‘Hey, there are certain things that we agree with you because our vote represents that, but on this one, we disagree adamantly, and we ask that he reconsider because our vote is strong.”