Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Local Florida broadcast outlets struggled to cover DeSantis’ draconian immigration law

Local media largely failed to inform Floridians about harsh criminal penalties and constitutionally dubious provisions associated with SB1718, which is now law

  • Local Florida broadcast news bungled their coverage of recently-passed immigration measures championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which some have characterized as the harshest anti-immigration crackdown in America. 

    On February 23, DeSantis revealed a policy plan targeting the estimated 775,000 undocumented immigrants in the state of Florida. The House passed the Senate version of this proposal, SB1718, on May 2. On May 10, Desantis signed SB1718 into law despite widespread pushback from faith leaders, business groups, and Florida’s farmworkers association. These groups have said the legislation would “criminalize the church’s work” and harm Florida’s economy, which relies on undocumented workers. Florida House members tabled SB1718’s near-identical companion bill, HB1617, after legislators approved the Senate version.

    Local news outlets aired 369 segments about the proposal from February 23 up until May 1, a day before the legislature passed SB1718. Coverage largely did not inform viewers about the severity of the bills, frequently failing to explain key aspects or to interview immigrants directly affected by the legislation. 

    Though the iteration of SB1718 signed into law stopped short of criminalizing the transport of undocumented immigrants within Florida, it still has the potential to make a felon out of any American who helps migrants into the state. The SPLC Action Fund warns SB1718 could impose far-reaching consequences on mixed-status families across the U.S. The state Senate also kept alarming provisions that invalidate identification cards issued to undocumented people by other states, including driver's licenses, and repealed a rule that created a path for undocumented immigrants to be admitted to the Florida Bar.

    The original version of SB1718 would have taken away in-state tuition vouchers for undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients and people brought to the United States as children. (This provision was dropped from the final bill, but it was in the version that existed during our study.) Legislators are still requiring businesses with over 25 employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of employees, mandating that hospitals that accept Medicaid ask patients about their immigration status, and giving DeSantis $12 million for the controversial migrant relocation initiative.

  • Less than a third of coverage featured immigration activists or immigrants

  • Only 29% of segments (107 out of 369) cited immigration activists, while just 12% of segments (43) interviewed immigrants. This means most reporting lacked direct perspective from the people and communities who would be most impacted by SB1718 and HB1617. 

    A large amount of coverage that did feature activists and immigrants occurred when protests against the bills ramped up through April, as reporters talked to immigrants and activists speaking out across Florida. These subject matter experts added historical and social context about the legislation and its impacts on the state, which was absent in the majority of coverage across Florida. 

    For instance, community members ensured that WESH of Daytona Beach was explicit about the ripple effect HB1617 and SB1718 would have across Florida industries – putting a spotlight on the state's massive agricultural industry. Hope Community Center’s Felipe Sousa Lazaballet explained, “It would basically make it almost impossible for the agricultural community to hire people. About 50% of farm workers in Florida are undocumented."

  • Video file

    Citation From the April 5, 2023, edition of WESH's 2 News

  • Just 8 segments mentioned concerns about racial profiling

  • Immigration advocates claim SB1718 and HB1617 would “open the floodgates for potential racial profiling” by including local law enforcement and regular citizens in the immigration enforcement process. Yet only 2% of segments (8) airing over the study period mentioned concerns about racial discrimination and profiling. 

    Opponents say that SB1718 and SB1617’s sponsors are targeting undocumented Latino immigrants. Florida's population is 27% Latino, and there is no way to know the immigration status of a driver, passenger, or coworker without explicitly asking. SB1718 and HB1617 asked Florida residents to do just that – giving officers extra latitude to factor in a target's physical appearance when making arrests. There’s plenty of evidence that extra latitude emboldens officers to trample over constitutional rights. 

    With few exceptions, Florida news outlets refused to tease out these connections.

  • Few outlets covered provisions that would reject means of identification for undocumented immigrants

  • Only 17% of segments (61) acknowledged that SB1718 and HB1617 invalidates all forms of out-of-state identification and community ID cards for undocumented immigrants. Outlets sometimes acknowledged the bill makes it a felony for “unauthorized aliens” to use “false identification,” or for “unauthorized people” to “intentionally use false information” but did not elaborate.

    Beyond putting both documented and undocumented residents in more precarious legal positions, activists raised constitutional and safety concerns over SB1718 and HB1617 invalidating out-of-state driver's licenses. The provision likely violates the Constitution's “full faith and credit” clause — which forces states to recognize the laws, records, and judicial proceedings of other states — and threatens road safety. Despite this, 83% of segments didn’t acknowledge the potentially unconstitutional provision. 

  • More than a third of the SB1718 and HB1617 coverage did not acknowledge criminal penalties for housing or transporting undocumented people 

  • During this time, 64% of segments (236) covered provisions in SB1718 and HB1617 that have the “potential to make felons out of every single Floridian,” according to the Florida Immigrant Coalition, by threatening state residents with up to up to five years in prison for providing undocumented immigrants with shelter, work, transportation, or even religious services. Despite explicit warnings from immigration groups that this would criminalize something as commonplace as a mother taking their child’s friend to a game, many outlets dubiously framed the provisions as “stricter penalties for human smuggling.” 

    The final law made it so only those who transport five or more migrants into Florida, rather than within the state, could face felony charges. This change has not addressed activists’ concerns about racial profiling and the criminalization of faith work.

    Some outlets, including WTWC of Tallahassee, uncritically repeated conservative claims that these increased penalties would “enhance border security and cut down on illegal immigration” without describing these penalties or who they might affect. Others, including WPEC and WPBF of West Palm Beach, took it a step further by pairing vague coverage with reports about human smuggling cases, further legitimizing right-wing framing that Florida needs punitive legislation to fix a so-called border crisis, without mentioning the issues that could arise when criminalizing daily interactions with undocumented people. 

    There was occasionally more detailed reporting. WESH reported the legislation “would make it a felony to have a friend or family member who is undocumented in your car or your home.” WTVJ of Miami similarly stressed the legislation could “put hundreds of thousands of Floridians, including landlords, lawyers, and religious leaders at risk of becoming criminals.”

  • Most outlets covered provisions that would’ve blocked undocumented immigrants’ access to health care and education, but not all

  • Additionally, 60% of segments (220) mentioned that legislators attempted to limit access to education or health care by repealing a state law allowing undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates or by mandating that health care providers ask patients their immigration status. 

    The final legislation removed all mentions of tuition but kept health care reporting requirements. Upon SB1718’s passage, Florida’s ACLU said the provision “instills fear in immigrant Floridians seeking to access health care.”  

    Reports covering these provisions benefited from interviews with undocumented immigrants and immigration lawyers who readily debunked common arguments from bill sponsors that undocumented immigrants are a burden on Florida taxpayers. Immigration attorneys and undocumented students protesting the proposed rollback on in-state tuition waivers warned WFTS it would lead to a “brain drain” by penalizing those who go to college to “help this society and this economy.” 

    Activists and immigrants also filled in gaps about how new health care reporting requirements would harm immigrant communities. As Sousa Lazaballet explained to WFTV, "This means that undocumented people will die in their houses. They will not go to the hospital. They'll be too afraid of deportation.” 

  • Video file

    Citation From the March 8, 2023, edition of WFTV's Eyewitness News

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for local broadcast affiliates for ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC in Florida media markets in Mobile-Pensacola (Fort Walt), Panama City, Tallahassee-Thomasville, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, Tampa-St. Petersburg (Sarasota), West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce, Fort Myers-Naples, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale for the term “immigration” within 20 words of any of the terms “reform,” “undocumented,” “illegal,” “package,” or “status” or any variation of the term “immigrant” from February 23, 2023, when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the immigration reform package, through May 1, 2023, a day before the legislature passed SB1718.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when DeSantis’ immigration reform package was the stated topic of discussion or when we found a significant discussion of the package. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the package with one another.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for whether they included claims that the legislative package would threaten Florida residents with criminal charges if they provide undocumented immigrants shelter, work, or transportation; affect a significant portion of Florida residents or undocumented immigrants; criminalize or revoke undocumented immigrants' out-of-state driver's licenses; or hamper undocumented immigrants' ability to access medical care or education.

    We defined a claim as an uninterrupted block of speech from a single speaker. For host monologues, correspondent reports, and headline reports, we defined a single claim as a block of speech between read quotes or played clips. We did not include the speech within read quotes or played clips unless a speaker in the segment positively affirmed that speech either directly before or after the quote was read or the clip was played.

    We also reviewed the identified segments for whether they included any mention of concerns about racial profiling or clipped or quoted any immigrant regardless of status.