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What to expect under Florida’s immigration bill? Uncertainty.

Community event hosts immigration attorneys to discuss new legislation. Many grapple with difficult decisions.
 
Over a hundred people gathered during an Immigration Town Hall questions and answers session on Thursday, May 11, 2023 in Tampa.
Over a hundred people gathered during an Immigration Town Hall questions and answers session on Thursday, May 11, 2023 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 13, 2023|Updated June 9, 2023

She didn’t rush to check messages or videos on her cellphone Wednesday when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, surrounded by Republican allies in Jacksonville, signed the new immigration law.

Instead, she waited until Thursday to find answers about how the new law will affect her job as a farmworker in Wimauma and the risks she may face because of her status in the country.

“There are several things that make me feel afraid,” said Elda Chafoya, a 42-year-old Guatemalan immigrant and a mother of three kids, all of whom were born in the U.S.

Chafoya attended a Thursday night community meeting at Saint Leo University in Tampa, along with over 100 other immigrants and their families, to discuss the legislation, which is set to become law on July 1.

It expands the requirements for businesses with 25 or more employees to use E-Verify, a registration system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that checks the immigration status of workers. The new measure also requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask about patients’ immigration status during the admissions process, and imposes penalties against individuals who transport someone without legal status into the state, which can result in a third-degree felony.

Over a hundred people gathered during an Immigration Town Hall questions and answers session on Thursday, May 11, 2023 in Tampa.
Over a hundred people gathered during an Immigration Town Hall questions and answers session on Thursday, May 11, 2023 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Rep. Susan Valdes, D–Tampa, hosted the meeting with immigration attorneys Milton Marquez and Ananis Makar.

Immigration advocates have been criticizing DeSantis and his support for the legislation, which is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and the influx of newly arrived migrants across the southern border.

Ana Lamb, who advocates for immigrant rights and attended the meeting, said community gatherings are important and necessary due to the uncertainty and fear that the new law is causing among workers, especially those from Central and South America.

“Many have begun to ask what is going to happen,” she said. “It’s a tough question, but the most important thing is to be informed.”

During the meeting, Marquez and Makar discussed several topics, including the mandatory E-Verify, the risks associated with transporting individuals into Florida and the appropriate steps to take when encountering law enforcement.

Makar said that it will be the responsibility of employers to submit their workers’ documentation through E-Verify within three days and to keep track of those applications. If a business does not comply with this requirement and a worker is found to be without legal status, the employer will be fined and may even lose its permits and licenses.

Supporters of E-Verify argue that requiring all employers to conduct immigration checks would eliminate the attraction of Florida for undocumented workers. But critics said DeSantis is exploiting the immigrant community for his own political agenda, which may include a presidential bid.

Marquez emphasized the importance of being cautious about the law’s provision that exposes Floridians to felony charges if they transport immigrants without permanent legal status.

“Remember that this is an anti-immigrant law,” Marquez said.

He recommended carrying copies of any documents that certify their immigration status, such as asylum requests, court dates or work permits. He explained that with the new law, the situation will become increasingly difficult for many.

“I have a lot of clients who are asking me: ‘Should I move out of Florida?’ I tell them that each case is different but it is not a bad idea, either. That’s my opinion,” said Marquez.

One of the attendees, a woman who had arrived from Central America a few years ago, asked if it was possible to sue the state of Florida and DeSantis for the psychological damage that this new law could cause to her family.

“My children were born in this country, but they are very worried about what could happen to me,” the woman said. “It’s not fair.”

Chafoya, the Guatemalan immigrant, said at the end of the meeting that she was not completely convinced to stay in Florida due to the risks posed by the new law.

Now she is considering moving to North Carolina to work in the fields and start a new life. Chafoya believes that the sacrifice is worth it because she would not be able to handle the trauma of being separated from her daughters if she were detained by immigration authorities.

“I have to be realistic and fight for my daughters,” she said. “They are everything to me.”