Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami recently criticized an immigration bill under consideration in Florida, saying it criminalizes “empathy” by making it a crime to transport undocumented migrants for any reason. 

The bill, SB1718/HB1617, provides for a third-degree felony for anyone who “[t]ransports into or within this state an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably should know, has entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the federal government since his or her unlawful entry from another country.”

Supporters of the bill say the provision is meant to crack down on human trafficking. 

In addition, the bill would require hospitals that accept Medicaid funds to collect information about their patients’ immigration status. The bill has the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Wenski said such a law “offers no solutions to the real and growing concerns at the southern border but will bring real harm to Florida’s businesses, houses of worship, schools, public health and safety as well as to the migrants themselves.”

“Anyone offering a ride to an undocumented migrant from church, school, or workplace could be charged with a third-degree felony. Requiring hospitals to collect data on patients’ immigration status would discourage migrants from seeking timely medical care and would end up overburdening hospital emergency rooms,” Wenski said in a March 23 statement.

“The sponsors of this bill want to take out their frustrations on the migrants with various punitive measures that unfairly demonize them and gratuitously seek to make their lives even more difficult. Theirs and our frustrations could more productively be directed towards Washington by urging Congress to address much-needed immigration reform,” Wenski wrote.  

Christie Arnold, associate for social concerns and respect life at the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (FCCB), which represents all eight of Florida’s bishops, testified against the bill outlining FCCB’s opposition last month. 

“These bills unfairly target the immigrant community in Florida as well as those who devote themselves to assisting them. Criminalizing the mere transport of undocumented people within Florida will have far-reaching negative consequences in the business and church communities,” the FCCB wrote on March 20. 

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There are approximately 775,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida as of 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. Other Christian groups have said the bill will “criminalize the church’s work” of ministering to Latino people regardless of their immigration status.

“We have schools, we have Sunday school, we have church vans that bring them to worship, we have soup kitchens that we sometimes drive people to who are undocumented because they need food. Sometimes we take them to their lawyer,” Gabriel Salguero, pastor of an Assemblies of God congregation in Orlando, told NBC News.

Wenski has often called for comprehensive immigration reform during his tenure and has occasionally criticized DeSantis’ approach to the issue. In February 2022, Wenski decried DeSantis’ comments belittling the plight of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America for the United States.