Florida grand jury calls for changes in a law that targets the smuggling of undocumented immigrants

A statewide grand jury this week urged the Legislature to expand a law targeting people who smuggle undocumented immigrants into the state.

The grand jury, empaneled at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis, issued a presentation that described the smuggling of undocumented immigrants as an “escalating threat.”

“(We) have concluded that illegal alien smuggling not only endangers Floridians, but also generates enormous sums of money for TCOs (transnational criminal organizations), which are used to further a wide range of criminal activities, particularly drug and human trafficking. ” the presentation, posted on the Florida Supreme Court website, said. “Furthermore, the illegal aliens who are smuggled into and within the state are put in a vulnerable position and are often exploited by criminals. This is of particular concern when dealing with unaccompanied alien minors.”

The presentation came as lawmakers prepare for the 2023 legislative session, which starts in March, and as controversy continues to swirl over the DeSantis administration’s decision in September to transport migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

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As part of the justification for the migrant flights, DeSantis pointed to a need to protect Floridians from such things as people transporting drugs into the United States.

DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate who has long criticized federal immigration policies, requested a grand jury empanelment in June. The Supreme Court granted the request, with the grand jury empaneled in the 10th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.

A presentment is a formal statement, and the grand jury described the recommendations issued Tuesday as an “initial” presentment, indicating more could be coming.

The grand jury called for expanding a human trafficking law that says people commit third-degree felonies if they transport to Florida someone they know or should know is entering the country illegally.

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The proposal will expand the law in several ways. For example, it would create a third-degree felony for a person who conceals, “harbors or protects from detection or attempts to conceal, harbor or protect from detection” immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

As another example, violations of the law would be second-degree felonies if the undocumented immigrants are under 18, according to the proposal.

The presentation said the grand jury heard testimony from Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey and Bill Gladson, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

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“While state and local law enforcement agencies have done their best to combat this escalating threat, it is clear that more needs to be done,” the presentation said. “Since the smuggling of illegal aliens into and within Florida involves multiple individuals, TCOs and other criminals, the Human Trafficking Act must be revised.”

While bills have only begun to be filed in the 2023 legislative session, the Republican-dominated House and Senate and DeSantis have passed a number of measures in recent years targeting illegal immigration.

For example, in 2019 lawmakers approved a bill that included bans on so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida. During the 2022 session, lawmakers also included $12 million in money in the state budget to relocate migrants — a pool the DeSantis administration used for the Martha’s Vineyard flights.


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