After avoiding detection for 17 years, Elda Chafoya had hoped that one day she would find some peace.
A decade ago, she followed the crops to Georgia, Ohio and North Carolina. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she settled in Florida to provide some stability for her family. She found steady work picking strawberries, cucumbers and sweet chilis. She rented a home in the Wimauma area that reminded her of growing up in Guatemala. Two other families moved in with her.
But when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation last month that’s considered among the nation’s toughest crackdowns on illegal immigration, Chafoya realized that the stability she had sought for so long might be lost for good.
That’s when she started thinking about leaving the state with her three daughters, all of whom were born in the U.S.
“It’s a survival mode,” she said.
The new law goes into effect July 1 and will target the workforce lacking proper legal documents in various industries. It expands the worker verification process and requires that businesses with 25 or more employees have to use E-Verify, an online system that checks a person’s citizenship. If someone is found working without proper documents, the state can penalize employers.
The legislation prohibits local governments from issuing ID cards to individuals without permanent legal status and invalidates driver’s licenses issued by other states for such immigrants. It will expose drivers to third-degree felony charges for knowingly transporting immigrants who lack proper legal documents into the state and require hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect patient immigration information.
The law sets aside $12 million for DeSantis’ migrant relocation initiative, a program that has been described by opponents as a political stunt. The relocations grabbed headlines Monday when two charter planes with three dozen immigrants flew from the U.S. southern border to Sacramento. Last year, DeSantis flew about 50 Venezuelans from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a traditional summer destination for celebrities and public figures.
“The legislation gives Florida the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, fighting back against reckless federal government policies and ensuring the Florida taxpayers are not footing the bill for illegal immigration,” DeSantis said last month.
More than three weeks later, however, Hispanic groups organized demonstrations in Tampa and other cities across Florida, warning that the new law would harm the economy.
Facebook, TikTok and Instagram feeds have been filled with viral videos showing abandoned farms and construction projects. Latino truck drivers also called for a boycott and the suspension of deliveries to and from Florida on the day the law goes into effect.
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In Florida, there are more than 1.8 million immigrants, including those without permanent status. Immigrants represent 11% of the total labor force but account for the largest share in certain industries.
They make up 37% of the workforce in agriculture; 23% in construction; and 14% in service jobs, according to a recent KFF Health News analysis of a 2021 U.S. Census report.
After two years of a coronavirus pandemic that disrupted the economy, the law coincides with an increased demand for labor. This labor crunch is pronounced in Florida’s agricultural sector, which employs thousands of people each year in counties such as Hillsborough, Polk, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. Construction also relies heavily on immigrants. More than 311,000 immigrants work in this industry in Florida, according to the nonprofit The Center for Construction Research and Training.
A study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy research and advocacy organization, found that those immigrants make up approximately 5.2% of Florida’s labor force, or about 512,000 workers. The same analysis concluded that immigrants help meet important labor needs and fill crucial gaps without taking jobs away from U.S.-born workers.
“Increasing immigration is the way forward to grow our labor force, strengthen the economy, and save every American from rising costs,” said Phillip Connor, senior demographer at FWD.us, a bipartisan organization working to reform immigration and criminal justice.
Laudi Campo, the state director of the Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1990, said that the law will hurt families as well as the local and national economy.
“Florida’s economy will feel the brunt of these cruel anti-immigrant laws and we think there will be a swift effort to try and rectify the problems caused by these laws,” said Campo. “We just hope it won’t be too late.”
But Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Forecast at the University of Central Florida, said it is premature to guess how deep the impact of the law could be.
“Probably, we’ll see many people finding new ways to deal with the new rule, but it is not going to be the end of undocumented workers in Florida,” said Snaith.
Already, some lawmakers who supported the law are downplaying how consequential it will be. Two Republican state representatives, Rick Roth of Palm Beach and Alina Garcia of Miami-Dade County, urged migrant workers in South Florida to ignore the law. Roth said it was “more of a political bill than it is policy.”
“This bill is 100% supposed to scare you,” Roth said in a video.
A key enforcement issue will be verifying the legal status of workers. Currently, anyone who wants to work is required to fill out an I-9 employment eligibility verification form and provide ID, such as passports or driver’s licenses. Companies are required to only collect and submit copies of the documents with the I-9 form without checking the legal status of the workers.
That changes July 1, when companies are required to verify legal status by using E-Verify. But that only applies to companies with 25 or more workers. So after the law goes into effect, many agriculture and construction companies will likely begin employing subcontractors with fewer than 25 to avoid being held responsible if they’re employing workers without legal status.
But people like Miguel and Maria Perez, a married couple from Mexico, are already bracing for enforcement.
Miguel Perez, 60, immigrated two decades ago without documentation, and ever since, he has been supporting his two daughters and his wife in Mexico. Eight years ago, he paid to bring Maria, 53, to America through the southern border.
Perez worked in construction for many years, saved enough money, and paid for his children’s college education.
Two years ago, the couple started working for a landscaping company in Wesley Chapel owned by Jemi and Katherine Carbajal. They said the state government is ignoring the needs of immigrants, who don’t want anything for free.
“It’s unfair to witness this happening,” said Katherine Carbajal.
“They simply want to work. Is that too difficult to understand?” Jemi Carbajal said.
Perez and his wife were disappointed when they heard that DeSantis had signed the law. With no opportunities left, they decided to leave for Louisiana later this month. A friend’s son has offered to let them temporarily stay in his apartment while they search for a job.
They don’t know him personally, but it’s the only choice they have, Perez said.
“We don’t want to leave, but we feel safer somewhere else,” he said. “We are no longer 20 years old to be taking risks.”
Darryl Williams, a Plant City farmer, remembers how farm work brought him joy and challenges as a child. Now, at 62, he never imagined that politics could wreak so much havoc in an industry that feeds everyone. He employs over 150 farmworkers during the year.
Williams, known as El Capullo among farmworkers, said his employees are concerned about the situation. Many of them have friends and family members without legal status.
“I’m concerned as well because they are like a family,” he said. “But I think it’s important to be informed at this point and see what happens. For now, we can’t do more than that.”
José Raúl Márquez, a subcontractor from Cuba now based in Tampa, said he has already lost five workers. He said they left the state a week ago because they didn’t want to put their families at risk. Márquez has construction projects in Tampa, Plant City and Naples, among others. All of them are facing schedule delays because his workers have left.
He said DeSantis is making it difficult for business owners to create jobs.
“Despite all these years in the business since 1990, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Márquez, 64. “It’s really tough.”
Chafoya, 42, the Guatemalan immigrant and single mother of three, has been cleaning up the house she’s renting in Wimauma and packing some suitcases. She’s considering a move to North Carolina, where she worked years ago.
Chafoya thought about leaving two weeks ago, but a local activist told her to hang on and see if anything changed. She loves the community where she lives, including her chickens and dogs.
“If there are no guarantees of work, where will we get the money to pay the rent and support our families?” she asked.
Chafoya thinks the situation is going to become even more challenging. Two weeks ago, she had to rush to a hospital in Sun City because she got really dizzy after being hit on the head. When she arrived at the hospital, they told her that she had to pay for the consultation upfront. If she couldn’t, they threatened to call an immigration officer next time, she said.
“I said, ‘You can’t do that,’” she recalled. “But they told me ‘Yes, we can.’”
Chafoya believes that only a miracle can change fear into hope.
“But maybe,” she said, “I won’t be here to see that.”