JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on the verge of a 2024 presidential campaign, announced last week the state’s most ambitious proposal yet to combat illegal immigration.
The legislation, which Mr. DeSantis said would counteract “Biden’s border crisis,” would expand E-Verify to private sector businesses, strengthen detention requirements for immigrants without documentation in Florida and invalidate out-of-state licenses issued to those living here illegally, among other changes.
In-state tuition for immigrant students who are in the country illegally would end. Hospitals statewide would have to report what is estimated to be millions of dollars in costs of caring for patients who are in the country illegally. Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally would also be prohibited from practicing law in Florida.
The proposal, if passed by the state Legislature, would boost Mr. DeSantis’ credentials on border security ahead of a potential presidential campaign, strengthening his position against both President Biden and top GOP primary opponent, former President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump ran his 2016 campaign on the promise of securing the southern border and accomplished some of that goal during his term by building part of a southern border wall and making it harder for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to remain.
Mr. Biden reversed Mr. Trump’s strict border policies and halted construction of the border wall on his first day in office.
Since then, millions of migrants have crossed over the border illegally and filtered into other states, including Florida. The increase has pushed border security to the top of the list of voter concerns.
Mr. DeSantis introduced his border security proposal two days after Mr. Biden announced new asylum restrictions.
Mr. Biden said he plans to seek a second term.
“If he’s going to run again,” Mr. DeSantis said, “this is a massive problem for him. And I think that they may be wising up about that, because, you can’t defend the borders of your own country? That’s kind of like your primary job.”
Mr. DeSantis has not announced plans for a presidential run. According to those familiar with his thinking, he won’t announce his decision until after the Florida legislative session ends in May.
For now, Mr. DeSantis is proposing a series of high-profile conservative measures, including the border security bill, that stand a good chance of passing the Legislature because Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers.
“I think we’re going to be able to do more in the next couple of months, when the Legislature reconvenes, than anyone’s been able to do in the modern history of Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said during an appearance in Jacksonville.
Mr. DeSantis’ border security plan aims to address rising college tuition costs, he said, by ending in-state tuition rates for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“If we want to hold the line on tuition, then you’ve got to say you need to be a U.S. citizen who lives in Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Why would we subsidize non-U.S. citizens when we want to make sure we can keep it affordable for our own people?”
Mr. DeSantis, appearing next to a “Biden’s Border Crisis” sign as he addressed an audience in Jacksonville, said his proposal should serve as a template for other states. A multistate approach to curbing illegal immigration, Mr. DeSantis said, will “force the federal government to get with the program and to finally secure and defend the borders of the United States of America.”
Pro-immigration groups swiftly condemned his plan.
“I’m surprised the governor hasn’t proposed criminalizing undocumented people and those who employ them for eating, sleeping, and breathing — that’s how preposterously and cruelly restrictive this legislative package is,” said Samuel Vilchez Santiago, Florida State Director for the American Business Immigration Coalition Action. “DeSantis’ draconian anti-human package does not only harm our state’s diverse communities but also our economy.”
The E-Verify requirement in Mr. DeSantis’ proposal may be difficult to pass.
Florida already requires E-Verify for public employees, but the plan by Mr. DeSantis would expand it to private companies, including the agriculture and hospitality industries that rely on immigrant hires.
It is estimated that about half of all Florida farmworkers are immigrants who are in the country illegally.
E-Verify requires employers to check prospective employees’ eligibility to work legally in the U.S. through a website run by the Homeland Security Department.
Under the DeSantis proposal, employers who violate the state’s E-Verify requirements twice in two years could lose their business licenses.
The measure would expand a bill he signed into law last year that required public employers to use E-Verify. Mr. DeSantis said last year’s measure was an “inadequate” compromise.
The proposal would enhance penalties for human smuggling.
The proposal would prohibit local governments in Florida from providing ID cards to those living here illegally, and those registering to vote would have to pledge that they are U.S. citizens and legal residents of Florida.
The governor’s plan will be introduced by Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia. It must win the approval of the Legislature, which begins meeting in March.