(RNS) — After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered state regulators to deny licenses or renewals to those sheltering unaccompanied migrant children, more than 200 faith leaders and evangelical pastors of Spanish-speaking churches made their way to downtown Tallahassee last year in February to protest the governor for preventing them from doing the “work that God has called us do.”
Many of those shelters were housed in local Latino evangelical churches, according to the faith leaders who also demonstrated against a law that now forbids state and local governments from contracting with transportation companies that knowingly bring undocumented immigrants.
Now, as DeSantis prepares for a possible 2024 presidential bid and as he’s unveiled an immigration package that seeks to impose stiffer penalties for Floridians who “knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor” unauthorized immigrants, some Latino evangelical leaders say they’re willing to break the law if it’s enacted and are mobilizing their flocks — this time in larger numbers — to “fight against DeSantis.”
As part of his immigration proposal, the governor wants to prohibit local governments from issuing ID cards to unauthorized immigrants, mandate hospitals to collect data on the immigration status of patients, reverse legislation granting out-of-state tuition waivers for eligible “Dreamers” and require all employers in Florida to use E-Verify to determine employment eligibility.
Under these proposals, some pastors fear they can get arrested simply for serving immigrant communities. Many churches provide food and shelter for those in need, which can include immigrants and unaccompanied immigrant children. Pastors often take ailing congregants to the hospital. Congregations travel to worship retreats and church vans frequently pick up and drop off church members.
“Allowing politics to interfere in the decision-making of congregations,” said Carlos Carbajal, who pastors an immigrant evangelical congregation in Miami, would be a “betrayal of the gospel.”
Though a relatively small demographic, Latino evangelicals are a fast-growing faith group in the United States and one that 2024 presidential campaigns will work hard to capture. However, many in the community caution that they are not easily swayed by traditional right-left arguments, even as more than half of Florida’s Latinos voted for DeSantis’ reelection last year.
To Agustin Quiles, a director of government affairs for the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelical Institutions, which represents more than 2,500 churches and organizations across the state, DeSantis’ proposed immigration package “is the issue that is really going to wake up the Latino evangelical community.”
“Even though DeSantis uses some of our conservative values to gain the support of our community, when you touch the heart of our churches and the people that we love and care for … our pastors will not stand for this,” Quiles said.
Among those at risk, Quiles said, are “people that are faithful, that give tithings, that are supportive to the work of the church.” The governor is “making a big mistake and he should reconsider,” said Quiles, who is part of the “Evangélicos for Justice” campaign against the death penalty that called on DeSantis to stay the execution of Donald David Dillbeck. That campaign will now focus its efforts against the proposed immigration measures.
The Rev. Esteban Rodríguez, with Centro Cristiano Pan de Vida in Kissimmee, a city in central Florida just south of Orlando, said he’s willing to not only break the law if DeSantis’ immigration package takes effect, but also ready to stand up against it.
Rodríguez cited the biblical story of Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt. He noted the midwives “who were wiling to break the law and that’s why they were able to save Moses.”