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Catholic leader accuses Ron DeSantis — who has positioned himself as a defender of the Christian faith — and Florida Republicans of seeking to criminalize ’empathy’ with new anti-immigrant crackdown

archbishop behind mics and podium at press conferenceArchbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, at the Archdiocese of Miami Pastoral Center in Miami Shores, Fla.

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

  • Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski says a Republican immigration bill would criminalize “empathy.”
  • Backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the bill makes it a crime to knowingly transport an undocumented migrant.
  • Wenski accused Florida Republicans of trying to “demonize” vulnerable people.

A proposal in Florida that would make it a felony to knowingly provide transportation to an undocumented immigrant is a “punitive” measure that would effectively make it illegal to be a good Christian, the Catholic archbishop of Miami said Thursday, accusing its promoters — including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — of seeking to criminalize “empathy.”

There are around 772,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida, according to the Migration Policy Institute; around half have resided in the United States for more than a decade. Under a bill making its way through Florida’s GOP-led legislature, providing any of those people transportation, be it to a school or church, would be a felony offense and conflated with trafficking, with violators risking prison time.

Last month, a group of evangelicals in Florida spoke out against the proposal, saying it would make them criminals for preaching the gospel.

In a statement issued Thursday, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski echoed that criticism, accusing Florida Republicans of playing state-level politics with a federal issue.

The bill, SB 1718, “would criminalize ’empathy’ by expanding the definition of ‘human smuggling,'” Wenski said. He took issue not just with the transportation provision but the requirement if passed, that hospitals check the immigration status of those they treat, which Wenski argued: “would discourage migrants from seeking timely medical care and would end up overburdening hospital emergency rooms.”

He added: “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.”

A spokesperson for DeSantis, a practicing Catholic who has positioned himself as a defender of the Christian faith, did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not the first time that DeSantis and Florida’s Republicans have run afoul of the Catholic Church. In February, the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops, told Insider that it opposes a DeSantis-led push to expand the death penalty. A pending bill would allow a convicted criminal to be put to death even when jurors are opposed, a proposal the conference’s executive director, Michael Sheedy, said is “deeply concerning.”

The church has also criticized DeSantis on immigration. In February 2022, Archbishop Wenski took issue with DeSantis’ rhetoric on unaccompanied minors at the US-Mexico border, accusing him of dehumanizing rhetoric and arbitrarily distinguishing them from Cubans who earlier came to Florida as refugees.

“This was a new low in the zero-sum politics of our divisive times,” Wenski said. “Children are children — and no child should be deemed ‘disgusting’ — especially by a public servant.”

DeSantis, however, has shown no signs of responding to the criticism. At the time Wenski made his earlier remarks, then a spokeswoman for DeSantis, Christina Pushaw, went on the offensive. “Catholics do not have to support illegal immigration or human smuggling,” she wrote on Twitter.

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