Touted by Gov. Ron DeSantis as one of the strictest immigration crackdowns in the nation, stronger criminal penalties for transporting undocumented migrants into Florida have resulted in the arrests of only three people by state law enforcement officials in three months. All involved the same Florida Highway Patrol troopers.
DeSantis, working with the Republican-led Legislature in Tallahassee, hailed his package of reforms as “the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country” when he signed them in May. As the governor has campaigned for president, the crackdown on transporting migrants is among his proudest achievements on the campaign trail, promising at an event on the Texas border in June: “if you bring people into the state illegally, you get stiff penalties now in the state of Florida.”
But so far, the Florida agency that enforces the law on highways across county lines has reported a handful of arrests in only one region of the state — the Central Florida counties of Sumter and Hernando, according to a Miami Herald/Times analysis of Florida Highway Patrol Records arrest records through Sept. 22.
Why is that area of the state the only region where there have been arrests under the new law? Why have there been so few arrests? The Florida Highway Patrol would not answer.
“FHP does not comment on investigative tactics or active investigations,” said Molly Best, a spokesperson for the agency.
The governor’s spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, would not answer the questions either, but wrote, “You’ve based your story and questioning on a false premise.” He challenged the line of questioning in a thread on X, and suggested that “FHP is just one of many agencies in Florida that can make arrests for human smuggling,” but did not produce any statistics demonstrating other arrests, or the impact of the new law.
The law took effect on July 1. It modified and expanded an existing human-smuggling statute to make it a third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully transport into 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….“
The drivers arrested under the law, and their passengers, were undocumented migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. They said that they were living in or traveling to Florida to work, according to the arrest reports and interviews with the Mexican consul in Orlando.
The drivers were stopped for traffic infractions such as speeding, window tints darker than legally allowed, and expired tags, the reports said. They told authorities they knew the car’s passengers had illegally entered the United States. The driver could now spend years in prison.
Civil and immigration rights groups sued the state over the transportation law and asked a federal judge to block its enforcement, saying that it inflicts extreme harm to service providers, seasonal workers and families who travel back and forth across state lines. The judge has not yet ruled on whether he will put the law on hold while litigation is ongoing.
The measure has also sparked tensions with Mexico, whose president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has accused DeSantis of being anti-immigrant and called on people to vote against him. Lopez Obrador and his government are following the cases and providing legal assistance to two of the men arrested, both of whom are Mexican nationals, said Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul in Orlando.
READ MORE: Florida’s arrest of undocumented van driver escalates Mexico’s tensions with DeSantis
“It worries us because both took place on the same highway, with the same police officers, for the same reasons — the tinted windows,” Sabines told the Herald.
He noted that immigration and deportation proceedings in the U.S. are civil, not criminal matters, unless someone is coming back after being deported.
“Being a migrant is not a crime,’’ he said. The state is “criminalizing migrants for being migrants, for their human condition.” The consul’s office said it was not aware of any other arrests in Florida besides the three that FHP reported.
Redfern said the governor “will do everything within his authority to put public safety ahead of rhetoric from other government officials.”
He also criticized Sabines’ position. “There are real implications to the heinous, criminal act of human smuggling,’’ Redfern said. “We have zero patience for special interests, including the Mexican Consulate, wishing to see Florida back down from harsher criminal penalties.”
Florida legislators who voted for the law have said that it aims to keep undocumented immigrants from coming into the state. It’s part of a wider package of immigration-related measures that also require hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients about their immigration status and require employers with 25 or more workers to check whether new hires are allowed to work in the country.
State Rep. Rick Roth, a Belle Glade vegetable farmer and one of the Republican lawmakers who supported expanding the human smuggling law, said he was not aware of the arrest of any migrants as a result of the new law.
“There was no extra money put in for law enforcement,’’ he said.
The first traffic stop
The first person to be arrested under the new human-smuggling law was David Jiménez Cumplido, 21, from the Mexican state of Puebla. He came to the U.S. a year ago to join his father in New Mexico and is from the valley city of Tehuacán, where his mother still lives, Sabines said.
“He has a boy’s face,” said Sabines, who visited him at Sumter County Jail on Tuesday. Sabines said Jiménez has spent the last two months in custody praying and reading the Bible.
Jiménez was working as a roofer and plumber in New Mexico but came to Florida for the first time for a job in Orlando, Sabines said.
He was traveling through Sumter County on Aug. 7 when Florida Highway Patrol Trooper D.P Lewis stopped him because of an illegal side window tint and an expired tag, according to the arrest report. FHP Troopers Wesley R. Kelly and Eric Schaub, as well as Sgt. Joshua .J. Malloy, assisted on the scene.
The two passengers were brothers who came from Mexico six months ago, the arrest report said. Jiménez said that they had met on a Facebook job-seeking group and were to return to New Mexico after completing the work. Then the police stopped them.
Jiménez “admitted to having illegally entered the United States… and knew that the passengers had also illegally entered,” the report said.
He told the officer that the car belonged to “his boss,” but later said he was not sure who the owner was. The report noted that police examined the car after a police dog “received an alert” and that there was evidence of tampering in the interior.
“There were no work clothes, work boots, tools,’’ it said. “However, after a thorough search, no contraband or bulk currency was discovered.”
Jiménez is facing two felony charges of human smuggling and two misdemeanor counts of driving without a license and without a motor vehicle registration, according to court records. He pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in March 2024.
Sabines, the Mexican consul, emphasized that the human smuggling statute specifically criminalizes bringing undocumented migrants into the state. He said that Jiménez had only driven in Florida.
Two more arrests
A day after Jiménez’s arrest, Kelly pulled over a white van in neighboring Hernando County for speeding. The two other troopers who had been involved in Jiménez’s arrest also responded, along with an investigator who was fluent in Spanish.
The driver, Eldin Ariel Trejo, 37, gave the officers his Honduran passport and told them that he and the passengers had come from Atlanta to St. Petersburg to work. The passengers were migrants from Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Trejo has a suspended Georgia driver’s license and active arrest warrants in the neighboring state, according to the police report, and he had been deported twice previously. Police downloaded the contents of his cellphone.
The state charged him with three counts of felony human smuggling, another felony for using a communication device to facilitate a crime and a misdemeanor for driving with a revoked license. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and is awaiting trial at the Hernando County Jail.
Two weeks after the first two arrests, Kelly stopped Raquel López Aguilar, 41, a roofer and father of two from the Mexican state of Chiapas. The white van’s window tints were darker than the legal limit, according to the arrest report. He was on his way back to Tampa. Sabines said López works to support his wife and children in Mexico.
López had been deported previously, according to the police report. There were several adults and a child in the vehicle with him when he was stopped, all identified as Mexican nationals.
López is being detained at the Hernando County Jail. Florida authorities charged him with four counts of felony human smuggling and one misdemeanor for driving without a license. He pleaded not guilty, and has a court hearing later this month.
The Mexican consul’s office has reached out to DeSantis’ office to discuss the law and its impact on Florida’s immigrant communities. But so far, Sabines said, there has been no response — what he describes as a stark departure from the Mexican government’s relationship with previous governors, including Republican Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. Sabines said he is planning a Tallahassee trip to discuss the law with legislators.
“In Mexico, American consuls are always received by governors and the authorities,” said Sabines, who said he is willing to have a dialogue with DeSantis about the law and immigrants’ contributions to the state.
Roth, the Belle Glade farmer and legislator, said he could not say whether the law will have an impact on seasonal migrant workers returning to Florida for harvest season this winter.
“It’s intended to deter people from out of the country from just coming to Florida to begin with,’’ he said. “It’s having the intended impact.”
But, he added, it’s also too early to tell what impact the transportation crackdown will have on the workers coming back to Florida from other states to pick winter vegetables.
“I think we’ll know more in another month.”