Across Tampa Bay, a community effort to provide the facts on Florida's new immigration law

St. Petersburg-based immigration attorney Adriana Dinis has had a busy summer.
Dinis, co-owner of the Immigration Law Group of Florida has crisscrossed the Tampa Bay region giving pro bono presentations to non-profit and community groups about Senate Bill 1718, Florida’s new law on undocumented immigrants.

Dinis has appeared at meetings of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the University Area Community Development Corporation, the Hispanic Leadership Council, business associations, church groups and other community organizations to provide accurate information and cut through misconceptions on the new legislation.

A July virtual meeting of the City of Tampa Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council is a prime example of the community awareness effort that includes Dinis. That evening, Dinis appeared alongside Maritza Gonzalez, program director at Lutheran Services Florida, Tampa Police Department Hispanic Liaison Cpl. Rose Angelakopoulos and moderator Lisette Campos of the Tampa Bay Chamber to discuss the potential impact of the law on the Bay area’s immigrant community and answer questions in English and Spanish.

Dinis has been visiting community organizations, law enforcement agencies and schools to provide training on civil rights, immigration law, immigration benefits available to children and other complex but impactful legal areas since the early days of her career as an attorney. She started at Gulf Coast Legal Services’ GLS CHILD (Children’s Immigration Legal Defense) program, representing undocumented children in immigration proceedings and dependency cases.

What Senate Bill 1718 does and doesn’t do

Recently, Dinis discussed the significant changes included in Senate Bill 1718 with 83 Degrees Media. The most impactful piece of the law, and the part being challenged in a recently filed court case, makes it a third-degree felony to transport an adult undocumented immigrant across the state line into Florida and a second-degree felony to transport an undocumented minor or five or more undocumented adult immigrants in a single trip. 

There are no exceptions for family members, church or school groups or emergency-care service providers. Dinis says the law could significantly impact people who live near the state line and cross it to bring an undocumented relative to a doctor’s appointment. It could also affect individuals traveling from Georgia to immigration appointments in Jacksonville, she says. There’s also the impact on migrant farmworkers who leave Florida after strawberry to support themselves with seasonal work in another state.

“What I tell my clients is if you’re going to stay in Florida, stay in Florida,” Dinis says. “Don’t leave and come back.”

She points out that the new law does not apply to driving undocumented immigrants, including family members, from place to place within the state, although there are fears and rumors circulating that it does.

Senate Bill 1718 also requires hospitals that take Medicaid to ask about the immigration status of the patients they serve and report to the state the number of undocumented immigrants they see and the costs of caring for them.

Dinis clears up some misconceptions about that portion of the law. First, a patient may decline to answer the question. Also, hospitals report a tally of the number of undocumented immigrants and the cost of caring for them, but not personal information on them. Still, Dinis expects concern and confusion over that portion of the law may keep people from going to the hospital for needed care. 

“Now hospitals are going to be asking this,” she says. “So people are foregoing going to the hospital because they don't understand that, even though the hospital is going to be asking it and tallying how many undocumented people they see a month and reporting it, they cannot report an individual’s identity. But still, the fear is there.”

Senate Bill 1718 also requires private employers with at least 25 employees must use the E-Verify system to verify to state government that all new hires or eligible to work in the United States.  If the Department of Economic Opportunity determines that an employer failed to use the E-Verify system as required three times in a 24-month period, that employer will face a $ 1,000-a-day fine.

The law also invalidates out-of-state licenses issued to undocumented immigrants. Currently, that provision only applies to Connecticut and Delaware licenses. During the July Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council meeting, Angelakopoulos, with the Tampa Police Department, says that department would likely mean a criminal citation for driving without a valid license if the person has ties to the Tampa Bay area. For someone with no local ties, it could mean arrest.

For the most part, Angelakopoulos says the new law will not change how the department's officers interact with the community.

“If you’re the victim of a crime, if something is happening to you, if you need help emergency care, police or fire-rescue, please call 911,” she says. “When you call 911, we are going to ask you your address and the nature of your emergency. That is not changing. We’re not adding a new question, ‘Hey are you documented? Do you have papers?’ That does not matter to us…we’re not ICE. We’re not immigration. We’re not in the business of deporting.”

Gonzalez, with Lutheran Services Florida, says a significant amount of that nonprofit’s grant funding to offer pro bono legal aid to immigrants has to go toward individuals who are registered with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, discounted low bono assistance is available for others.

For more information on organizations in this story, go to Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council, Immigration Law Group of Florida, Lutheran Services Florida, Tampa Police Community Outreach Liaisons.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.