Florida agricultural workers are fearful ahead of new immigration law

MIAMI — After spending years working in an orchid nursery in Homestead, a city and major agricultural area south of Miami, a Salvadoran worker said she and her family of four are considering leaving.

Since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping immigration bill into law last week, many like her are weighing their options.

The worker, whose name is being withheld because she’s worried about repercussions for her or her family, works outdoors in the South Florida heat planting orchids in pots from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. She said that she loves living in the state and that her friends and neighbors have become family.

But though she has work authorization as an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, she worries about her husband, who lacks legal documentation to work.

“I would like to stay in Florida, but the work situation is going to become very demanding,” she said.

In meetings with immigrant advocates and religious leaders and in conversations with employers, agricultural workers throughout Florida have been expressing their fears and worries about the state’s new immigration law, which takes effect in July.

Among the requirements is that businesses with over 25 employees use a federal system known as E-Verify to determine whether the employees are legally allowed to work in the U.S.

The new law will also invalidate driver’s licenses issued in other states to drivers who lack legal status and prohibits local governments from providing money to organizations that issue identification cards to immigrants without legal status.

It will also require that hospitals in the state that accept Medicaid include a citizenship question on forms, thus discouraging many immigrants from getting medical care.

The law also provides $12 million for DeSantis’ migrant relocation program. The governor made headlines last year when he flew a group of Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to protest federal immigration policy.

DeSantis, who’s expected to soon announce his presidential candidacy, has taken a hard-right position on immigration, something that appeals to many Republican primary voters. The immigration bill was signed the day before Title 42 was lifted, a policy that allowed the U.S. to quickly expel migrants at the southern border for the past three years during the pandemic but also led to increases increases in people repeated trying to cross the border illegally. DeSantis has been a harsh critic of Biden and federal border policy.

‘Uncertainty breeds fear’

For a large swath of Florida’s population, the law affects their livelihoods. In Homestead, known for its plant nurseries, most workers live year-round here working in plant production and landscaping; only a minority are seasonal workers. Many of the mostly Latino workers don’t have legal immigration status.

Some immigrant workers have already left the state and many are asking questions and wondering if they should leave, too.

“What we’ve heard and seen since the signing of the law is that many of the workers are scared, are fearful, and are asking themselves what’s the path forward,” said Óscar Londoño, co-executive director at We Count!, a local organization advocating for immigrant workers. “At the same time, we know that a growing number of employers are also concerned about this law because it won’t just affect immigrant workers. It will also affect the employers who depend on their labor.”

The Salvadoran orchid nursery worker in Homestead, who’s also a member of We Count!, said she and her fellow employees were already warned that rules will be changing in July. She’s concerned that the renewal of her work permit may not arrive in time.

“Last time, it took one year and three months to receive my work authorization, and my employers kept asking me when it would arrive,” she said.

In Immokalee, a farming town known for its tomatoes and about an hour’s drive from Naples, many of the workers are seasonal.

“The biggest fear they have is to lose their jobs,” said Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer with a worker-based group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

DeSantis’ signing of the bill coincided with the end of the tomato season in Immokalee. This is the time of year many workers leave for Georgia and South Carolina, where they harvest tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Some workers usually come back to Florida in August to prepare the soil to plant tomatoes, and by November most of them have returned to harvest the crop. Gonzalo said they may not return this year.

“It’s cold in many states during the winters, so people will have to find work in other areas,” said Gonzalo. “They will have to adapt.”

The fear of what will happen in July is not just spreading among farmworkers. Some farm owners are concerned over how their businesses will operate with fewer workers available.

Elvira Cepeda, a grower in Homestead, said she was having difficulty finding farmworkers to harvest crops after the new law was signed. She said fearful workers haven’t stopped calling her about it and have told her they’re contemplating leaving the state.

“South Florida’s economy here in Homestead is agriculture. Most of them we know are undocumented. Who’s going to harvest?” Cepeda told Noticias Telemundo in Spanish.

One grower was optimistic that the law wouldn’t result in major changes.

Pedro Sifuentes, who came from Mexico over 30 years ago, owns okra fields in Homestead and says none of his 120 workers have left.

“I have told them that every cloud has a silver lining,” he said about conversations he’s had with farmworkers. “The government knows that everything here moves thanks to hard-working people and Latinos. They make the state strong, and the government is not going to do anything to harm the state.”

Several Latino Republican legislators voted for the law. One of them, Sen. Ileana Garcia from Miami, was not immediately available for an interview but she defended the legislation in a statement in March, saying that it is “designed to prevent the use of illegal identification cards in Florida to prevent human trafficking and put a stop to the abuses by unscrupulous individuals who take advantage of the most vulnerable. It’s amazing to what lengths the extreme left and open border activists will go to lie, hoping to instill fear to advance their partisan agenda.”

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and pastor of The Gathering Place in Orlando, said he and others recently held a meeting at the Mexican consulate to reassure immigrants and those assisting them and to provide legal advice, pastoral care and support.

“We are having sessions in community centers and churches. There were over 100 immigrants there and we were there several hours responding to questions about what’s in the law, what’s not in the law,” Salguero said.

“The uncertainty breeds fear,” Salguero said. “We asked the state Legislature to reconsider — it is our job to serve the community the best we can.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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