Jul 09, 2023
New Florida Immigration Rules Start to Strain Some Businesses
Advertisement Supported by Some employers said they were losing workers because of the new law, which was championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. By Miriam Jordan Miriam Jordan traveled to Orlando, Apopka
Some employers said they were losing workers because of the new law, which was championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
By Miriam Jordan
Miriam Jordan traveled to Orlando, Apopka and Jacksonville to report on the new Florida law.
After signing into law a raft of new measures aimed at undocumented immigrants in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the legislation gave the state “the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country.”
It would, he said, keep Florida taxpayers from “footing the bill for illegal immigration.”
Critics of the law warned that it would come with a price of its own, and a costly one for a state that relies on hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in agriculture, construction and hospitality.
Under the new law, which went into effect on July 1, hospitals are required to ask patients their immigration status and document the costs of caring for such patients. Many more employers are now required to use an electronic database to identify hires illegally in the country, or face fines. And undocumented immigrants can no longer be sure that drivers’ licenses from every other state will be considered valid in Florida.
So far, the state hasn’t undertaken any sort of sweeping crackdown, and it isn’t clear how aggressively the new law will be enforced. But its effects have begun to ripple through the state, stirring fear in some immigrant communities and frustration among some business owners.
In fast-growing states like Florida, construction has for decades attracted unauthorized immigrants willing to do onerous work, often in extreme temperatures, that many Americans shun. A lack of laborers in recent weeks has stalled projects around the state, and costs have started to rise amid competition for a shrinking pool of roofers, masons and painters, according to people in the industry.
Juan Baregas, a subcontractor who does framing for a large developer in Central Florida, said that he had lost half of his crew of 40 in recent weeks, limiting his ability to complete projects.
Some were authorized to work in the United States but left Florida because they feared for loved ones who weren’t, he said. Forgoing offers to raise their pay, workers relocated to Houston, Washington, D.C. and New York, where jobs were plentiful and unauthorized immigrants felt less vulnerable, Mr. Baregas said.
“Maybe this law won’t even be enforced,” he said. “But people feel persecuted. They want to live in peace.”
Tim Conlan, president of Reliant, a roofing company in Jacksonville, said a subcontractor had recently turned down a project after his workers refused to travel to Florida, preferring to stay in Georgia and the Carolinas. He also said that hourly rates for jobs had increased about 10 percent since the bill was signed into law in May.
“This law isn’t getting to a solution,” said Mr. Conlan, who has visited the state capital Tallahassee to press for policies that would allow his industry to legally hire the workers it needs.
The emerging effects represent the kind of impact that some lawmakers intended when they voted for the legislation this year.
Randy Fine, a Republican state representative who voted in favor of the new law, said that no business should be dependent on illegal immigration and that the state shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of providing health care and education for unauthorized immigrants.
“The state of Florida needs to do what it can to stand up to Joe Biden’s open border policy and protect Floridians from the massive cost of illegal immigration,” Mr. Fine said in an interview. “The purpose of the law is to get illegal immigrants to stop coming to Florida and to get those who are here to leave.”
Starting in the 2000s, a few states began crafting bills to clamp down on illegal immigration by, among other things, enlisting police officers to identify unauthorized immigrants and imposing penalties on people who sheltered, hired and transported them. Arizona passed a far-reaching law in 2010, and Alabama and Georgia followed the next year. But many provisions were gutted by court challenges.
Florida’s law, experts say, is notable for how expansive it is, targeting driver’s licenses, hospital services and the transportation of unauthorized immigrants, as well as businesses. “The omnibus nature of this Florida law is what’s different — it’s the breadth of things covered, not any single issue,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center.
Florida counts on a large foreign-born population to help power its economy. An estimated 770,000 undocumented immigrants work in the state, harvesting oranges, tomatoes and other produce, building homes and golf resorts, and staffing hotels and restaurants.
Until July 1, most employers in Florida were not held responsible for ascertaining the authenticity of documents that people presented to be hired. But under the new law, all companies with 25 or more employees must use the E-Verify system from the federal government to confirm that a prospective hire is authorized to work in the United States. A number of Republican-led states have put in place similar mandates in recent years.
Several Florida employers in various sectors who were contacted by The New York Times said they did not want to talk about the new law and any effect it was having. Several others did not respond to phone messages and emailed questions.
In late July, the Farmworker Association of Florida sued the state to block the law. The lawsuit said the measure was unconstitutional because only the federal government had the authority to regulate immigration.
Even among some supporters of the new law, the early impact has caused concern.
In a meeting with Hispanic religious leaders before the law went into effect, Rick Roth, a Republican state representative and farmer who voted for the bill, called on the ministers to convince people to stay. “We are losing employees,” he said during the gathering, video of which was widely shared. “They are already starting to move to Georgia and other states.”
In the Florida Keys, where tourism is the economic engine, workers without legal status like Mary-Ann Smith, from Trinidad and Tobago, have been abandoning jobs at restaurants and hotels.
“You come here to have a better life, doing a job that Americans don’t want to do, and then this law comes along,” said Ms. Smith, who worked for years at an upscale eatery and who remained in the country after her visa expired. She said that co-workers from Venezuela, Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti had also resigned. She recently arrived in Maryland, where she is job hunting.
Across Florida, immigrant advocacy organizations have been holding information sessions to try to allay concerns among foreign-born residents.
Dozens of people gathered recently at the Hope Community Center in Apopka, a city outside Orlando that is home to many Mexicans, Guatemalans and Venezuelans.
An undocumented Mexican woman named Nivia, who, like others, would not divulge her surname, said later that she and her husband, a sheet-rock installer, were considering a move to Chicago because they feared detention and separation from their four children. “My young daughter with special needs would not survive,” she said.
Another daughter, Ashley, 16, said that her best friend left the state when school ended in May. “A lot of kids were saying this might be the last time we see each other,” she recalled.
Cesar Velez, 44, a hairdresser from Colombia who is a U.S. permanent resident, was at the information session to better understand the law. It had decimated his business, which caters to immigrants, he said.
Mr. Velez had been offering free pickups and drop-offs to clients scared of driving, but many others had left the state. “I may have to leave, too, even though I’m legal,” he said.
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.
Miriam Jordan reports from the grassroots perspective on immigrants and their impact on the demographics, society and economy of the United States. Before joining The Times, she covered immigration at the Wall Street Journal and was a correspondent in Brazil, India, Hong Kong and Israel. More about Miriam Jordan