Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to usher in one of the country’s most punitive policies for undocumented workers. Senate Bill 1718, known as the “anti-illegal immigration bill,” passed through the Senate floor last month and would prohibit counties from providing funds to issue IDs to undocumented people, make it a felony to house or drive with an undocumented person, require hospitals to collect data on undocumented people, repeal a 2014 law that allows undocumented lawyers to practice law in the state, and target people who employ undocumented workers through sanctions. Organizers say the bill adds to an already heightened climate of fear, will impact Florida’s workforce, and escalates the state’s recent anti-immigrant actions.
In September, DeSantis sent about 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to dissuade migrants from arriving in Florida, which has historically been home to multiple Latinx and Caribbean diasporas. The program proposed by SB 1718 would be funded by $12 million from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“We’re hearing a lot of fear and a lot of bewilderment at the possibility of this becoming law,” said Adriana Rivera, the director of communication for Florida Immigrant Coalition. “People are going to be impacted in the decisions that they make every day.”
State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, who proposed the law, said he hopes other large states like Texas adopt similar legislation so that “the federal government will react” and take action on what Florida Republicans call the “crisis at the border.”
“We know that with legislators that are anti-immigrant across the country, they do look to other states for leadership to see what can be possible,” said Claudia Navarro, the co-executive director of WeCount!, a South Florida-based organization that fights for better living and working conditions for undocumented workers. “I have no doubt that legislation is going to start being introduced if it hasn’t already been across the state, across the country. And I think what we’ve been hearing, first and foremost, is a hesitation to even be visible.”
If the law passes the House, it will go into effect July 1. Workers will have to sign up for E-Verify, an application that will track a worker’s immigration status automatically, to be approved for work. Navarro said the tracking system is one of her biggest concerns for workers who won’t be able to have the necessary documentation to be verified, putting them in a “precarious situation.”
“I think it makes it more difficult for us to engage in new recruitment and new membership signups,” Navarro said. “They’re finding it very, very difficult to recruit domestic workers into the organization because they’re among some of the most precarious workforces in the state and in the country. Most of them tend to be undocumented women of color. In South Florida, most of them are Latina. And a lot of them are either on their own without much of a family network working in these isolated jobs, or they’re caregivers. The main breadwinners for their family. And again, having the tendency and wanting to believe that if they kept their head down and just focused on their work and focused on providing for their families, this won’t affect them and feeling like participating in an organization might exacerbate or bring issues.”
Pew Research estimates there were more than 775,000 undocumented people in Florida in 2016. Since then, that number has likely increased as Latinx and Caribbean migration continues to grow—putting mixed-status immigration households at risk of being deported.
“All of these freedoms are being taken away,” Rivera said. “It’s highly concerning, and there’s going to be a lot of ways that everybody is going to be impacted.”
For Virginia, an undocumented leader of the domestic workers committee at WeCount! who is withholding her last name to protect her identity, the bill has forced her to consider whether to remain in Florida. Virginia has been living in Florida for 12 years, ever since she immigrated from Peru with her daughter. For the past three years, she’s been organizing domestic workers like herself with WeCount!, helping domestic workers understand their rights in a field bereft with wage theft, long hours, and a fundamental lack of respect for the laborers. But a law like SB 1718 puts all the work she’s made in her community into question.
“This is not new,” Virginia said. “This has been going on forever. Every year they make us immigrants a part of their political agenda.”
During heightened immigration raids in the past, Virginia said she didn’t leave her house out of fear of deportation. These latest bills, however, would not just put her in danger, but her family as well. For her teenage daughter, who is also undocumented, it could mean not being able to finish high school.
“She’s a kid who’s been working hard, who’s still working hard in school, who’s getting her grades up,” Virginia said. “[Politicians] are not thinking about what’s going to happen when she gets on the bus and the bus can’t take her to school.”
Virginia said she has considered moving to New Jersey, where immigration laws are friendlier toward undocumented workers, with a group of undocumented women. In Florida, where there are an estimated 700,000 farmworkers and about half of them undocumented, the law could cause a major labor and brain drain from the state.
Virginia, Rivera, and Navarro all say there is still time to protest the law and show dissent. Rivera and Navarro highlight that folks should be preparing and educating themselves on their rights.
“I hope that they respect us as human beings because first of all, whether it happens or not, they are not seeing us as people, that we work, that we also suffer, that our children suffer from fear, persecution, finger-pointing,” Virginia said. “They should see us as human beings. That we also feel that we are also here to help our families, because it is total discrimination against immigrants.”