The arrest of a Mexican national accused of transporting undocumented migrants into the state is aggravating relations between Florida and Mexico, whose president and diplomats accuse Gov. Ron DeSantis of being anti-immigrant.
The criminal case against Raquel López Aguilar — an undocumented father of two from the state of Chiapas living in Tampa and working as a roofer — is the first case in which a Mexican national has been charged under a new Florida law targeting people who drive undocumented migrants into the state.
At the direction of President Andres Manuel López Obrador, Mexican diplomatic officials in Florida are ramping up efforts to defend Mexicans accused of violating DeSantis’ new law, including López Aguilar.
“The Mexican government is sending us resources to pay for this case,” said the Mexican consul in Orlando, Juan Sabines, in an interview Wednesday with the Herald/Times while he drove to visit López Aguilar at a jail in Hernando County.
Sabines called the state’s case against López Aguilar, 41, “complete injustice,” and vital to future cases prosecuted under the state law because it will set the legal precedent. Sabines said he has told López Aguilar that “while you might be a victim today, you could be a hero.”
“And he is willing,” Sabines said. “He is a brave man. Obviously, being in jail is uncomfortable, but he is in the best disposition to keep fighting.”
The Mexican government has accused DeSantis of engineering the law for political gain as he runs for president. Sabines said that his office has repeatedly sought dialogue with DeSantis and his administration about the law. They’ve sent formal letters as well as messages through intermediaries. But there has been no response so far.
The silence, Sabines said, has signified a deteriorating relationship between Florida and Mexico, an important economic partner to the state. The Mexican government has had close relationships with other Florida Republican governors, like Rick Scott and Jeb Bush, said the consul. But things have changed.
Now, Sabines said, “there is no interest.”
Driving to Tampa leads to felony charges
López Aguilar is accused of violating a state provision that makes it a human smuggling third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport undocumented immigrants into the state, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
He faces four felony counts and a misdemeanor for driving without a valid license and is scheduled to be arraigned in Brooksville on Thursday.
The law says that a person can’t transport into Florida “an individual whom the person knows, or reasonably knows, has entered the United States in violation of the law and has not been inspected by the federal government since his or her unlawful entry.”
López Aguilar was arrested on Aug. 21 after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled him over because the van he was driving had window tints “obviously darker” than the legal limit and large cracks on the windshield, the report says. Federal Border Patrol agents also responded to the scene.
López Aguilar and all six of the van’s passengers had “entered the United States illegally,” according to the report. The adults provided Mexican IDs, and a 7-year-old was identified by his full name and birthday. Aguilar and a passenger had been previously deported, the report states.
“Mr. López Aguilar advised he knew some occupants entered the United States illegally and assumed the others did as well,” reads the police report. It also noted that López Aguilar had several receipts for money transfers in his pockets, evidence the state determined, he had traveled from Georgia.
Sabines, however, says there is no proof López Aguilar was the driver when he crossed the Georgia state line into Florida, which he says the state would need to prove.
“At the time that they crossed [state lines], Raquel was not driving,” Sabines said. ‘We want to see what proof the state has because the passengers and Raquel have been clear about that.”
Because of that, Sabines said. “He is innocent before this law.”
Mark Arias, an Orlando-based attorney, is representing Aguilar through a Mexican government program known as the External Legal Assistance Program, or PALE, which offers legal help to Mexican nationals in the United States. The program was created in 2000 “in order to respond to the community’s need for legal services” and had processed nearly 92,000 cases as of June 2022.
Arias told the Herald that Florida “was stepping over the line” because the federal government oversees immigration policy, not individual states.
“I don’t believe they will be able to prove a violation” under Florida’s immigration law, Arias said.
Source: La Nacion