MIAMI — A new state immigration law could worsen labor shortages in South Florida’s agricultural industry, a sector that heavily relies on migrant labor and struggles to find domestic workers, according to growers, immigrant workers and farmworker advocates.
María Vázquez, a Mexican nursery worker in Homestead, said that over the last year she has witnessed colleagues and community members leave South Miami-Dade County, a region that grows warm-weather plants, fruits and vegetables that don’t grow in most of the rest of the country.
“Many people here risk their lives crossing the desert to get to this country. They leave children, wives. Then they come to a state where they put this law in place. They get scared and leave for another where they won’t get persecuted,” said Vázquez, who has lived in Homestead for over two decades.
The new Florida law, known as SB1718, came into effect on July 1. The legislation cracks down on undocumented labor and enacts a series of other immigration-related restrictions. The extent of the law’s impact will become clearer as agricultural businesses need more hands to harvest winter and spring produce and seasonal workers return to harvest the fruits and vegetables, say farmers, workers and advocates.
They told the Miami Herald the law could cause Florida agricultural businesses to bring more temporary foreign workers through a federal government program for agriculture called H-2A. Florida already had the highest concentration of certified H2-A positions at 14% last government fiscal year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
The program is designed to alleviate worker shortages faced by farms across the United States. But the visas are costly to sponsor, and advocates say the program is ripe for the exploitation and forced labor of the participating workers, who heavily depend on their U.S.-based employers.
A tropical produce gold mine
The last US Department of Agriculture census, conducted in Miami-Dade County in 2017, depicts an agricultural industry dominated by small, family-owned farms that rank number two in the state in terms of market value of agricultural crop products sold, with over $827 million in agricultural sales, and number 16 nationwide. Businesses range from farms that grow tropical fruits and vegetables to horticultural nurseries that grow trees, plants, and shrubs, as well as a small-scale animal production.
Nearly three-quarters of the county’s 2,752 farms are nine acres or smaller, while another 21% had less than 50 acres each. The top crops by number of acres were vegetables, followed by nursery stock crops, snap beans, avocados, and sweet corn.
Some crops, like boniato and guava, can grow year round. Meanwhile, the season for tropical fruits such as mangoes, longan and lychees is traditionally during the summer. But a lot of produce, such as yellow squash, zucchini, green beans and tomatoes grow from fall through spring, when temperatures are cooler in South Florida but still warmer than many other parts of the country.
“U.S. consumers are now accustomed to, and expect, a wide variety of freshly picked, beautiful produce available year-round in their grocery stores. Blessed with warm winter weather, South Florida is one of the very few places in the United States where crops are planted, tended, harvested and packed for shipping nationwide,” said Dr. Kimberly Morgan, associate professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center.
Morgan said South Florida’s vegetable and fruit producers start planting in August “to meet consumer demand in the late fall and winter,” and that harvesting for produce such as citrus, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and watermelons takes place at different times between September and June. The demand for workers peaks during harvest and packing, she said, likening it to when local grocery stores operate at full steam during the holiday seasons.
“When millions and millions of fresh fruits and vegetables ripen, there is a very short window in which to pick, transport from field to packing shed, clean, refrigerate, sort for the best quality, package in boxes or bags or crates according to the needs of the buyer, and arrange trucking to get the freshest produce in the hands of the final consumer,” Morgan said.
Much of the nursery industry grows products all year long. But sales and shipping of indoor goods often takes place during the spring and are sent across the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean.
Looming threat of worker shortages
In Miami-Dade, where over half the population is foreign-born, it’s immigrants who are working the fields, picking the crops, and tending to the nursery plants. They made up 86.7% of the industry’s workforce, according to a 2021 report from the County’s Office of New Americans.
Some live and work in Florida agriculture year round, while others are seasonal workers who follow crops to other states and come back for planting and harvesting. There are also workers who participate in other industries such as construction, said Claudia González, Homestead area coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
González said that some South Florida small-scale farmers, who were already reeling from COVID-19′s impact on agriculture, are not planning on producing the same amount of crops this year, because “they cannot risk their investment planting if there is not anyone to harvest it.”
Immigrant rights and agricultural worker advocates, such as the Farmworker Association of Florida, have publicly opposed SB1718. The agricultural worker advocacy group took Florida to federal court to challenge a part of the law that makes it a felony to transport undocumented immigrants into Florida.
In a sworn statement from the lawsuit, a 31-year-old Mexican woman who is undocumented said that she and her husband, who have three children who are U.S. citizens, usually travel to Georgia and Tennessee to work during the summer. But this year, they decided to stay put, resulting in a loss of income that has greatly affected their ability to pay rent, medical care for their kids, and other basic necessities.
“We were afraid we would never be able to come back home to Florida,” she said.
The new law makes certain out-of-state driver licenses used by undocumented immigrants invalid, and also requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients on intake forms about their immigration status. The law also requires private companies who have 25 or more workers to use a federal platform called E-verify to check whether new hires can work in the country. Starting next July, employers who don’t comply or are found to have repeated violations of the law could face daily fines of $1,000 or suspensions of their business licenses.
González said seasonal workers who follow crops often travel in groups and families where legal immigration status varies. She estimates she knows about 150 seasonal workers who left at the end of harvest and 150 others who left as a result of the law. The new law, in combination with the lack of affordable housing and high living costs in Miami-Dade, could keep seasonal workers from coming back to the state, she said.
“The husband has papers, and the wife doesn’t have papers. If someone in your family or group doesn’t come, they aren’t going to come and might decide to stay elsewhere. That’s where we expect to see the biggest impact,” said González
Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, the former general coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, said in a sworn statement in the lawsuit that about 600 families, mostly from Immokalee and Fellsmere, had left Florida after leaving in May when harvest season ended. He anticipates based on conversations the group has had with members that about 100 families would not come back into the state, “because they don’t want to risk a felony charge.”
“These same member families are unlikely to return for the vegetable harvesting seasons in the Florida winter and spring,” he said.
One South Dade grower, who asked not to be named because he fears retaliation towards his family and workers because he opposes SB1718, has not received a domestic work application in five years. He supports Gov. Ron DeSantis and opposes President Biden’s immigration policy. But the grower disagrees with Florida’s top leader on the law. He’s lost three employees who feared that older, undocumented family members would not seek out necessary medical care, he said.
The grower explained to them that the law did not require patients to answer the new immigration questions on hospital intake forms or require healthcare facilities to report patients to immigration authorities. He also said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a policy stating it will not carry out enforcement actions at hospitals and other sensitive places.
It was to no avail.
“They don’t trust the government,” he said. “And they don’t want grandma to be deported.”
Rep. Rick Roth, a Belle Glade fruit and vegetable grower and Republican state representative who voted in favor of SB1718, said that the law will affect businesses with over 25 employees or more that need new employees.
“If you are in agriculture and your employees work year round, that should not have that much of an impact. It will have an impact on you if some of your workers leave and you have to hire new ones,” said Roth.
More H-2A workers?
Advocates, workers and growers believe that the law could create even more demand for the H-2A program among Florida growers, who have already turned to the program in recent years to fill labor shortages that plague agriculture across the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pointed to the explosion in requested H-2A workers as one of the “clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor.” In the third quarter of government fiscal year 2023, Florida had 32,714 certified H-2a positions, second only to California, with 34,026, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“You can’t get domestic labor anymore because Americans won’t do the job. Without H2-A, I’d be out of work... We take care of all our employees, including our H2-A workers. They are family,” said the South Dade farmer.
Smaller vegetable and fruit growers who decide to opt into H2-A could face challenges, said Roth. Sponsoring visas under the H-2A program is costly: Employers must pay special wage rates and cover housing and transportation costs for workers. If living arrangements don’t have kitchens, they are required by law to offer workers three meals a day.
“The little guys are not using H-2A. They are the ones who will have a problem because they are going to have to get H2-A and also going to have to find housing,” said Roth, who added that the overhead costs per person are lower the more people a grower can bring.
González, the area coordinator for the Farmworker Association, said that her group will monitor the labor conditions of local employees who decide to stay with their current employers as a result of SB1718. She also believes an increase in workers through the H2-A program could further strain the availability of housing in Miami-Dade County.
“Where are you going to put them? Are you going to evict families that are already here to have housing for them?” she said.
Advocates also say that the H-2A program has enabled poor living and working conditions for workers, who depend on employers for transportation and living costs, and on invitations to work the next year for another season.
In 2021, the U.S. The Department of Labor mandated that a Homestead farm pay over $21,000 in back wages to squash and zucchini harvesters because they had not given them the meals required under the program. In February 2023, the federal agency ordered that Pure Beauty Farms, a South Miami-Dade grower, pay over $200,000 in civil penalties and back wages for violating the H-2A program.
Last December, a Bartow labor contractor was sentenced to a decade in prison for slavery law and RICO Act violations for forcing H-2A workers to work and housing them in unsafe conditions in a multistate criminal case.
“The H2-A workers I’ve interacted with are always looking over their shoulder. They always tell me ‘The boss is waiting for me, the boss is waiting for me.’” said Xiuhtecutli, the ex-general coordinator of the state’s Farmworker Association. “They have little contact outside of their employer’s sphere and don’t know who to turn to in scenarios of abuse or labor violations.”
©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.