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COMMENTARY: DeSantis lets Florida businesses keep using illegal labor

by Tribune News Service | September 23, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

By now, you've heard plenty about Ron DeSantis' stunt where he used Florida tax dollars to fly a plane full of migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.

I won't waste time debating the morality of the shtick. Either you find it indecent for a politician to use desperate families fleeing repressive regimes as human pawns in a publicity stunt or you think it's a hoot-and-a-half. Either way, your values are clear.

Instead, I want to focus on a question that has been mostly overlooked:

Why did the governor of Florida use migrants from Texas for his political theater?

Florida, after all, is chock full of undocumented citizens -- an estimated 800,000 or more. So instead of playing games with migrants from Texas, many of whom were reportedly legal asylum-seekers, why didn't Florida's governor choose some of the many people known to be illegally living and working in his own backyard?

Probably because that would highlight an embarrassing reality for DeSantis -- that Florida is a hotbed for illegal immigration, thanks partly to GOP lawmakers who have given companies the greenlight to employ and exploit undocumented workers here.

Just two years ago, DeSantis signed a law that exempted most private employers from having to use the federal E-Verify database system to confirm all their hires were legal.

Republican lawmakers had vowed to clamp down on illegal hiring. But after the agriculture industry complained, lawmakers tweaked their plan so that the only employers forced to use E-Verify were state agencies and their contractors. (As if the majority of immigrants flocking here were hoping to score shadow jobs in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.)

The deal was part of a wink-and-nod arrangement Florida businesses have had with GOP lawmakers for about a decade now. The businesses essentially say: We'll keep funding your campaigns and support your demonization of undocumented immigrants -- as long as you don't do anything to stop us from hiring them.

And DeSantis hasn't done squat.

Oh, he's staged press conferences and tantrums galore. But how often do you recall him cracking down on the employers -- the ones providing the incentive to come here?

By sheer coincidence, you'll find a bunch of big-ag donors in the governor's campaign reports -- tomato, dairy and cucumber operations cutting him checks of up to $100,000 a pop.

Keep in mind: The American Farm Bureau admits more than half its workforce is undocumented, saying on its website that: "At least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized."

Some agriculture execs claim few U.S. citizens will fill those jobs. What they really mean is that few will work those back-breaking jobs for the cruddy wages offered. Or for what many Americans are willing to shell out for groceries.

This is a country that likes cheap eats harvested by the very workers it demonizes.

So instead of paying higher wages to attract legal labor, agriculture uses widespread illegal hiring -- with the blessing of guys like DeSantis.

Now, DeSantis said he wanted to force private companies to vet all their hires, just like state agencies now do, but claimed he couldn't get GOP legislators to agree. How strange. Most GOP legislators are such DeSantis boot-lickers that they'd tongue-kiss his tennies if he asked.

Plus, DeSantis isn't shy about going it alone when he really wants something, either through executive orders or feisty press conferences where he could announce crackdowns on employers making illegal hires.

But he's done nothing of the sort. Instead, he's talking about Texas.

When asked why he was relocating people from Texas -- instead of the state he actually runs -- DeSantis rambled through a word-salad of an answer:

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of folks that come across. Where do they wanna end up? A lot wanna come to, because everyone wants to come to Florida."

Harvard must be proud. Using a generous translation, the governor seemed to be saying he was relocating migrants from Texas because they might have eventually made their way to Florida.

Try to follow that logic. Instead of cracking down on an agriculture industry that has already admitted to making illegal hires in his own state, DeSantis says he'd rather look in Texas for folks who might, maybe think about coming here.

Really, trying to find logic in all this can be a fool's errand. Because there's a certain segment of society that doesn't care about logic, root problems or solutions. They just want to scream about immigrants -- and like seeing guys like DeSantis scream along with them.

But for those who claim they have earnest intentions -- who claim they simply believe in the rule of law for immigration -- let me ask you this:

Since the agriculture industry openly admits the majority of its workforce is illegal, what have you seen Gov. DeSantis do about that?

What has he done to punish those employers who are not only profiting off illegal labor, but encouraging more undocumented immigrants to come here?

Why do you think he signed a law that specifically gives private businesses a pass on vetting their hires?

And why do you think he's staging stunts in Texas instead of calling people to account in the state he runs?

Unless maybe -- just maybe -- this isn't really about solving problems or holding powerful rule-breakers accountable.

Maybe it's just another attempt to distract from the serious issues DeSantis doesn't want to discuss during election season -- issues like abortion and education -- so he can instead scream about something more divisive.

Like migrants. From Texas.

Print Headline: COMMENTARY: DeSantis lets Florida businesses keep using illegal labor

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