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PolitiFact FL: DeSantis' misleading claim about Illinois law expanding police eligibility

Police SUVs parked one behind another in a row.
Nam Y. Huh
Chicago Police vehicles wait to receive Vital PPE from World Vision in Chicago, Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, joined an outcry of criticism after Illinois enacted a law allowing some immigrants to become police officers.

"To the Left, citizenship is meaningless," DeSantis said July 30 on X, formerly Twitter. "Illinois is now letting illegal aliens become police officers."

Social media posts echoed his claim.

"Breaking News: Far-Left Woke Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed a bill allowing illegal immigrants to become police officers," said an Aug. 7 Facebook post from Secure America Now, a conservative nonprofit.

But these comments ignore critical facts.

The new law expands eligibility to people who are allowed to both legally work in the U.S. and own a firearm. The firearm requirement makes immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally ineligible.

DeSantis didn't clarify what he meant by "illegal aliens." The governor's office directed PolitiFact’s request for comment to his campaign, but it did not respond.

However, DeSantis likely was referring to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, who are included in the Illinois law. Those immigrants — beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, aka DACA — have temporary lawful presence in the U.S. because an Obama-era program prevents their deportation. But they do not have a lawful status. Federal law says people without lawful status cannot own firearms.

State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, the Aurora Democrat who sponsored the bill, told PolitiFact that the portion of the law that allows DACA recipients to become police officers "is symbolic only until the federal government allows them to carry guns."

One expert told PolitiFact there is an exception in federal law that may allow police departments to purchase weapons that DACA recipients could use only while on duty. But the expert said he hasn’t seen the statute used in cases involving immigration status.

Illinois’ new law comes as police departments nationwide seek to diversify staff and combat employee shortages. Other states, such as California and Colorado, have passed similar laws.

Illinois’ governor, Hernandez and a co-sponsor of the bill all rebutted the claims about immigrants in the country illegally becoming police officers or deputy sheriffs.

"Undocumented immigrants are not allowed to become police officers in the state of Illinois," said Pritzker, a Democrat, in a July 31 press conference.

Hernandez said permanent residents will be able to apply to work as police, but "there will be no ‘illegal aliens’ working as police officers."

State Rep. Juan Cabello, a Republican from Machesney Park who co-sponsored the bill and who is a detective with the Rockford Police Department, said DeSantis "is absolutely, positively wrong."

Cabello didn’t give his support to Hernandez’ bill until she "agreed to add language about how aspiring DACA police officers were ‘subject to federal approval’ with regard to when they can carry guns," the Chicago Tribune reported in April.

New law expands police officer eligibility

Previously, only U.S. citizens could apply to become police officers. Under the new Illinois law that takes effect Jan. 1, 2024, eligibility includes:

  • U.S. citizens.
  • People who are legally authorized to work in the U.S. and are allowed under "federal law to obtain, carry, or purchase or otherwise possess a firearm."
  • DACA beneficiaries who are allowed under "federal law to obtain, carry, or purchase or otherwise possess a firearm."

Becoming a police officer in Illinois requires federal work authorization

To work legally in the U.S., noncitizens must have work permits. People can get employment authorization in a variety of ways, including having a work visa, becoming a legal permanent resident or being a refugee.

But getting work authorization is complicated and takes time, immigration lawyer Sui Chung said.

"You can't just apply for work authorization and get it, you have to fit under a specific category of eligibility," Chung said. "If you cross the border next week, you can't get work authorization just by being present in the U.S."

Asylum seekers, DACA recipients and people with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, may apply for work permits after meeting certain requirements, even if they entered the U.S. illegally. (Temporary Protected Status is a program that grants immigrants whose home countries are considered unsafe the right to live and work in the U.S. for a temporary period.)

People in those groups must renew their work authorizations every two years.

The U.S. also provides work visas to temporary agricultural workers, and certain investors and members of the press. In most of these cases, people must have a job offer before coming to the U.S. and must stay in that job to keep the visa.

"They’re here for a specific purpose, so their status would not allow them to become police officers," Chung said.

Another factor: Immigrants in the U.S. illegally are not allowed to possess firearms

To become a police officer or deputy sheriff in Illinois under the new law, people must be able "to obtain, carry or purchase or otherwise possess a firearm." Under federal law, legal permanent residents are allowed to purchase firearms, but people who enter the U.S. illegally are not.

This presents a complication for DACA beneficiaries who are federally authorized to work in the U.S. but aren’t eligible to own guns, said Lauren Aronson, director of the University of Illinois Immigration Law Clinic.

Most courts have ruled that deferred action recipients cannot own guns. But one court dismissed a 2019 case about a DACA recipient's gun possession, saying federal law "is grievously ambiguous regarding whether the phrase ‘illegally or unlawfully in the United States’ refers to either presence or status."

So where does that leave deferred action recipients in Illinois who want to become police officers?

"The Illinois statute is aspirational; in the event something changes about the federal gun statute or its interpretation, only THEN would DACA recipients be eligible to serve in law enforcement here," Aronson said in an email. "This is part of what makes the social media response lashing out and claiming ‘illegal’ immigrants can arrest citizens so completely wrong."

However, there is a possible exception to this prohibition if the firearm is purchased by or for use in a federal or state department or agency, said Adam Davidson, a University of Chicago law professor.

"This is how people otherwise prohibited from having a firearm can serve in the military or work as corrections officers, for example," Davidson said. "And presumably it would allow DACA recipients to possess firearms in their official capacity as police officers."

But Davidson said the cases he’s familiar with do not involve immigration status; he cited cases of people who were involuntarily committed to mental institutions, which prohibits them from owning a gun, but were later allowed to serve in the military or police departments.

Decisions over whether DACA recipients in Illinois can own a gun and therefore be eligible to become police officers would have to be settled by courts, Davidson said.

The Illinois law does not go into effect until 2024, but one police department in Illinois already hired DACA recipients even before the bill passed, according to news reports. Blue Island Police Department did not respond to PolitiFact’s request for comment.

But its police chief told Factchequeado, a PolitiFact partner, that the department used what it considers to be an exception in state law to purchase weapons that the department gives employees. The weapon remains under the department's control unless the employee is working, the chief said.

Hernandez also told PolitiFact that she believes the Blue Island Police Department purchased weapons and allows DACA officers to carry them only while on duty.

Our ruling

DeSantis said, "Illinois is now letting illegal aliens become police officers."

The statement ignores critical facts.

Illinois’ new law makes people eligible to become police officers if they have federal work authorization and are legally authorized to possess firearms. That includes permanent residents.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients who came to the U.S. illegally as children are included in the Illinois law, and they may apply for work permits after meeting certain requirements. But though they have temporary lawful presence in the U.S., they do not have a lawful status. Most courts have ruled that deferred action recipients cannot own guns, because federal law bars people without lawful status from owning firearms.

However, one expert said there’s a possible exception if immigrants are using weapons owned by the police departments only while on duty.

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Nuria Diaz Muñoz joined PolitiFact in June 2022.
Maria Ramirez Uribe is an immigration reporter at PolitiFact.