CRYSTAL RIVER — Rogelio Rauda stood in the parking lot of a waterfront motel, warning a fellow construction laborer on the other end of the phone not to go to Perry. He’d heard the Florida city, farther north and closer to Hurricane Idalia’s landfall, had a heavy police presence and was less safe for immigrants who don’t have legal status.
Rauda had spent the morning dumping mold-freckled drywall from the storm-damaged motel into a dumpster, scooping up the smaller pieces in his bare hands like graham cracker crumbs. He and his crew came to Crystal River in Citrus County as part of a national workforce that follows natural disasters like seasonal crops. They provide labor during the grueling months after hundreds or thousands of properties are damaged or destroyed.
Many of these migrants, including Rauda, flocked to Southwest Florida less than a year ago after Hurricane Ian to help homeowners rebuild. But this year is different. This time, many are too afraid to enter the state because of a new immigration law that took effect in July — part of a slate of measures pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis shortly before he announced his presidential campaign.
Already, there have been news reports of the law causing labor shortages in the state’s restaurant, hotel and agricultural industries. Hurricane Idalia will be the first test of whether the labor shortages brought on by that new law will also hamper rebuilding efforts in Florida, just as the state enters peak hurricane season.
Rauda said all the precautions they’ve had to take because of the Florida law exact a mental toll.
“People are scared,” he said. “You walk on eggshells.”
A national nonprofit group called Resilience Force, which advocates for post-disaster laborers without legal status, informally polled its roughly 2,000 members about whether Florida’s new immigration law would prevent them from traveling to the state.
“Well over half” said yes, said Saket Soni, the group’s executive director. Many were people who worked in Florida after past hurricanes like Michael in 2018 and Ian.
“I’ve never heard so many workers so unanimously afraid. These are people who have been deploying to rebuild homes after hurricanes since Katrina,” Soni said, referring to the 2005 Category 5 storm that devastated Louisiana.
Florida Senate Bill 1718 made it a third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport a person without legal status into the state. It required private businesses with at least 25 employees to use E-Verify, the online federal system that checks the immigration status of workers. It also mandated that hospitals that accept Medicaid ask about patients’ immigration status on intake forms, and invalidated driver’s licenses issued by other states to people unable to prove lawful residency in the country.
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Soni said DeSantis’ policies would ultimately hurt homeowners, and the impact of a labor shortage will only worsen if another storm hits a more populous area than Idalia’s landfall in rural Big Bend.
“This is a governor who’s grabbing headlines for a presidential run. That’s ultimately more important to him right now than his own constituents, homeowners who desperately need workers to rebuild their homes,” he said. “That’s a practical problem, not a political one.”
The governor’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. When DeSantis has spoken about immigration policy on the campaign trail, he’s emphasized the dangers that he said are posed by people coming to the country illegally, citing drug trafficking. His campaign rolled out a hardline immigration plan that proposed to do away with birthright citizenship for people born in the U.S. to parents without legal status, and DeSantis has said suspected cartel members should be shot “stone-cold dead.”
Rauda has been working in disaster recovery since arriving in the U.S. from Honduras 22 years ago, and decided to risk coming to Florida because of the job opportunities to make money quickly. Rauda said he sends the money he makes back to his family in Texas. He estimates he needs to make about $3,500 a month to feed his family and cover their bills.
“We want to work, yes, but it’s not easy. And, at the same time, subcontractors are also afraid of hiring us because of the law,” he said.
Last year in Fort Myers, it was common to see migrant construction workers eagerly waiting for work all over town: at gas stations, on corners, outside Home Depot stores. In Crystal River last week, there were few signs of their presence. Debris piles lay baking in front yards next to manatee-shaped mailboxes that invoked the town’s famous tourist attraction.
After police told his crew they could no longer sleep in their cars in a shopping plaza, Rauda said, four of them crammed into one room at a cheap motel for $70 a night. They advertise their services by holding a handmade sign: “Demolition, Cleaning, Drywall” — but were asked to move to a different street corner by a nearby store manager.
Maria Oyuela is one of the workers who are staying away.
For four months after Hurricane Ian, she and her husband slept in their car in a Fort Myers Home Depot parking lot, having left their son with family in another state so he could keep going to school, she said. They installed sheetrock, made repairs and painted homes.
But the temperature of the immigration debate in Florida was already rising. Oyuela said local police repeatedly asked her about her papers or threatened to deport her. This year, with the new law in place, she said they decided it was too dangerous.
“It hurts a lot to not be able and go help people and find work,” Oyuela, who is also from Honduras, said in a phone interview from Louisiana. “I feel frustrated, but I can’t go.”
Two other migrant workers interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, who declined to provide their full names because of their immigration status, said they made the same choice. Even as rebuilding work slows to a crawl in other hurricane-struck states along the gulf, it wasn’t worth the risk of deportation, they said, which could leave their families without breadwinners.
All three migrants said they hadn’t ever opted to stay out of any state until now.
Contractors interviewed by the Times had differing views of what the labor shortage will mean, though not whether there will be one. They said the construction industry has already been grappling with a labor shortage that was years in the making.
Daniel Osborne, owner of DRR Drywall Repair in Ocala, said the immigration law would help ensure homeowners hire licensed tradespeople like him to rebuild their homes. Workers not held to those same standards, like those in the country illegally, run the risk of mishandling repairs that could lead to dangerous mold problems, he said.
“If individuals are being forced to explore and secure local, legal, licensed professionals, that’s going to help their local, legal, licensed community,” Osborne said.
Brent Taylor, a general contractor who’s president of Taylor Construction Group in Tampa, said the smaller supply of labor will lead to longer timelines and higher costs for homeowners affected by Idalia to make repairs. He said the construction industry needs workers even if they don’t have legal status because younger Americans have stayed away from trades after generations were encouraged instead to seek out white-collar careers.
“I believe that we have a crisis when it comes to (immigration). But I also believe that there is maybe other ways to resolve the problem, rather than just, ‘You can’t work,’” said Taylor, who is also president of an organization called Tradesmen for Triumph, which helps hurricane-affected homeowners find licensed tradespeople and contractors. “Whether it was after Ian or not, our industry is very heavily dependent on what we’re calling migrant workers.”
At the Crystal River motel, Rauda was back to demolition — ripping out the bottom half of each room’s mint green-painted drywall, prying nails off with a crowbar to get down to the studs. Dust filled the musty-smelling air. In parts of the walls they hadn’t yet torn down, mold had already started growing so thickly that it was fuzzy, like cotton.
Following two rooms behind was Rogelio’s nephew, Junior Moises George Rauda, who was caulking baseboards to the new sections of drywall. For their work, the group of migrants will be paid $1,000 per room to split, though sometimes a chunk of their profit has to be used for building materials.
Taped to the glass on the small motel’s front office was a notice from an inspector on bright red paper, with a handwritten note that said water had rushed into the building, possibly damaging the electrical system.
At the top, an all-caps heading read: “UNSAFE.”
Times staff photojournalist Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.