Eucebio arrived in Panama City soon after Hurricane Michael destroyed so many people’s lives there, ready to help them rebuild. He came to Florida from North Carolina, where he had repaired homes flooded by Hurricane Florence. Before that, he had been in Houston rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey. But his streak of repairing homes and lives could end if Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law the senseless Florida SB 168. That’s because Eucebio is a 33-year-old undocumented immigrant, which is why we can use only his first name.
The anti-immigrant bill will turn local law enforcement officers into de facto immigration enforcement agents, driving immigrants away just so some politicians can score political points. But extremist, fear-mongering laws like SB 168 always result in more harmful consequences than people foresee, and communities across Florida will pay dearly for it.
Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, play a critical but largely unacknowledged role in helping communities rebuild and recover during and after natural disasters. Each year, as our state faces more frequent and more powerful storms, their role and expertise become ever more essential.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael, it was a crew of Honduran and Colombian immigrants who helped rebuild Panama City’s City Hall, which allowed the very center of the city to reopen for business. At the heavily damaged campus of Florida State University in Panama City, dozens of Venezuelan immigrants, many of them professionals seeking asylum for being on the wrong side of the political spectrum in their home country, labored around the clock to clean up and repair buildings. It was an effort that enabled the school to welcome back students less than three weeks after the storm hit. Immigrants continue to fix up homes today, helping to bring Panama City back to life — block by block— despite the abuse they often face from employers who hire them but refuse to pay them, and other injustices they face.
We have both seen this work close-up. I, Saket, have made several visits to Panama City in recent months as part of a new initiative called Resilience Force, which is focused on supporting the resilience workforce — the people who make recovery from disasters possible.
The work is taxing, and I saw Eucebio do it all, from installing new roofs to carting away heavy debris. He says that there’s a special satisfaction knowing that because of his work, people are able to return and begin their lives again. Many people on the ground understand that, too. Local residents readily expressed to me how they’d be lost, and how the recovery would be standing still without immigrants — including one resident who identified as a Trump supporter.
The people of post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana did much to embrace, protect and celebrate the immigrants who helped to rebuild their devastated state. They recognized that protecting their resilience workforce mattered much more to them than any hateful, politically opportunistic attack on immigrants. We should, too.
The governor cannot let SB 168 interrupt our recovery. There’s too much at stake for Florida.
Communities must have freedom — for everyone — in order to thrive.
Saket Soni, is director of the Resilience Force, and María Rodriguez is executive director of the Florida Immigration Coalition.