Legislation in Florida and Texas to crack down on undocumented immigrants is prompting some Hispanics to reconsider where they live and work.
In Florida, videos of empty workplaces began to go viral after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill that ratchets up sanctions for employing undocumented workers.
Those videos have caused a stir and energized some Hispanic communities, but they also reflect real fears, say advocates.
“I think there is a form of protest to it. I’m sure there is, ‘Well you’re gonna regret it because you need us,’ which is absolutely true. But also, I’m sure there’s a palpable sense of fear among the immigrant community,” said Mario Carrillo, campaigns manager for America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.
The Florida law goes into effect July 1, stacked with provisions that will make daily life harder for undocumented immigrants and their communities.
“Florida is a dangerous, hostile environment for law-abiding Americans and immigrants. It’s not always been that way,” said Domingo García, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
“And we need to make sure that everybody understands that you can be arrested for literally taking somebody to the hospital, for literally taking somebody to Disney World.”
Among other provisions, the state will no longer recognize driver’s licenses issued out of state to undocumented immigrants, and it will prohibit Florida counties from issuing ID cards to them, as well.
The law also mandates the use of E-Verify for hirings, a controversial registry program that opponents say too often returns false positives, preventing documented immigrants or U.S. citizens from working legally.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds up bills he signed during a bill signing ceremony at the Coastal Community Church at Lighthouse Point, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Lighthouse Point, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs E-Verify, nearly 60,000 job applicants who were marked as undocumented have been able to prove their legal right to work in the country.
Out of more than 48 million job applicants, the system only found about 525,000 unauthorized applicants.
The law also penalizes transportation of undocumented immigrants in a way that advocates say far exceeds any human trafficking prevention statute.
In Texas, Republicans last week passed a bill through the state House that would create the “Border Protection Unit,” a specialized immigration police force that would operate in counties along the border, where the state’s Hispanic population is concentrated.
The Border Protection Unit bill was folded into another immigration bill in the House after Democrats thought they had killed the proposal through legislative maneuvers a day earlier.
“There’s always hope that with our very short session every two years that things die … but it very unfortunately seems likely to pass,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas).
With the path clear for Texas and Florida to enact the strictest enforcement actions against undocumented immigrants in their history, the states will join a group that has attempted to supplant federal immigration enforcement with local laws.
Historically, the most stringent of those laws have come with a political cost.
Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) is seen during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing to discuss fraud and waste in federal pandemic spending on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. (Greg Nash)
In California in 1994, passage of Proposition 187 precipitated the state’s shift toward Democrats, and Arizona’s 2010 law known as SB 1070 energized young Hispanics to become more involved in politics, often on the Democratic side.
“I want the governor of Florida and the politicians in Florida to remember what happened in California when they did something similar, what happened in Arizona when they did something similar,” García said.
García also announced LULAC is issuing a “travel advisory” against Florida, a move the group has only taken once before, when Arizona approved SB 1070.
“On the ‘travel advisory,’ and as the governor noted previously, this type of thing is a political stunt. We aren’t going to waste time on political stunts but will continue doing what is right for Floridians,” said Jeremy Redfern, a spokesman for DeSantis.
Asked about concerns of a lack of workers in Florida with the new law, DeSantis on Monday said the state has historically required workers to be in the country legally.
“When we have something like an E-Verify, that’s a tool to make sure that longstanding Florida law is enforced,” said DeSantis.
“You cannot build a strong economy based on illegality.”
But some in Florida say cracking down on the more than 770,000 undocumented people in the Sunshine State will have dire consequences.
“I am deeply concerned. DeSantis has declared war against immigrant workers in Florida. Their exodus could bring our tourism, agriculture and construction industries to a grinding halt,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.).
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) discusses the 106th anniversary of Puerto Ricans being granted U.S. citizenship during a press conference at the Capitol on February 28, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)
And while DeSantis has broad support in Florida, including among many sectors of the Hispanic community, some say tough enforcement could erode it.
“The more this stuff plays out, people who are profiled — it might be hard to tell in a car if you’re Cuban or Mexican,” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group.
“So it’ll be interesting to see if Cubans start getting pulled over and start being questioned about their status and who is in their car, and what they might be guilty of,” Lopez added. “Only time will tell. but that’s certainly a strong possibility.”
Opponents of the bills are especially frustrated by what they see as a bald political move by both governors in light of the 2024 presidential race.
“This is all part of that Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis cruelty contest to be the next Donald Trump,” Casar said.
Many Hispanics in Florida and Texas say they feel sidelined by the political rush to score points with the GOP base, potentially putting their communities at risk.
Carrillo, who considered leaving Texas because his wife is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, said that race to the right could end badly.
“I don’t think for Greg Abbott it’s really about protecting migrants; I don’t think it’s about protecting the border communities. It’s just about amplifying his bona fides as anti-immigrant in what might be a presidential run for him,” Carrillo said.
“I don’t know what his political ambitions are, obviously, but it just seems like between him and DeSantis, they’re kind of trying to outdo each other on who becomes the most anti-immigrant governor in the country. And I’m just afraid to see the results of that.”
And whether the bills are motivated by politics or principle, opponents say, is irrelevant.
“I’m not sure what’s worse in the end, if he’s a true believer in the replacement theory, or if it’s just posturing,” said Lopez.