Florida’s Immigrants Face New Challenges Under Strict Law

Florida’s new immigration law, which took effect on July 1, 2023, has created a climate of fear and anxiety among the state’s undocumented immigrant community. The law, signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in May, imposes harsh penalties for hiring, transporting, or harboring unauthorized immigrants, invalidates any identification documents issued by other states or countries to them, and requires hospitals to collect and report data on their immigration status.

Many undocumented immigrants have reported feeling unsafe and unwelcome in the state, and some have decided to leave or go into hiding. A single mother of four from Honduras, who asked not to be identified, said she came to the U.S. two years ago to escape violence and seek a better life for her children. But since the new law was enacted, she has been living in constant fear of being arrested, separated from her family, and deported. She said she avoids driving, going to public places, or taking her children to school or the park.

Florida’s Immigrants Face New Challenges Under Strict Law
Florida’s Immigrants Face New Challenges Under Strict Law

“I imagined that we were coming to the U.S. to have a better life, to be calmer, but that was not the case,” she said. “There is always the fear that something could happen to us.”

Impact on Health Care Access and Quality

The new law also affects the access and quality of health care for undocumented immigrants and their families. The law requires all hospitals that receive Medicaid funding to ask patients about their immigration status and report the number and cost of services provided to those who are not lawfully present in the U.S. The law also states that patients can decline to answer the question and that their immigration status will not affect their care or be shared with authorities.

However, health care advocates and providers have warned that the law could discourage immigrants from seeking medical attention, especially preventive care or treatment for chronic conditions. They argue that the law could undermine trust between patients and providers, increase health disparities, and jeopardize public health.

Dr. Mona Mangat, an allergist and immunologist in St. Petersburg and a board member of Doctors for America, said she has seen some of her immigrant patients cancel their appointments or stop taking their medications out of fear of being reported or deported.

“This law is not only cruel and unnecessary, but it is also dangerous for the health of our communities,” she said. “It creates barriers to care for some of the most vulnerable populations in our state and puts everyone at risk of infectious diseases, outbreaks, and complications.”

Economic Consequences for Workers and Employers

Another aspect of the new law that has drawn criticism is its impact on the state’s economy and workforce. The law requires all employers with more than 25 employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check the legal status of their new hires. It also imposes sanctions on employers who knowingly hire or recruit undocumented workers, such as probation, fines, license suspension, and repayment of economic incentives.

The law has affected several industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor, such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, and food service. Some employers have reported losing workers who have left the state or gone underground due to fear of enforcement. Some workers have reported facing discrimination, exploitation, or wage theft from unscrupulous employers who take advantage of their vulnerability.

According to a report by the Florida Policy Institute (FPI), a nonpartisan think tank, undocumented immigrants make up about 5% of Florida’s labor force and contribute about $3.7 billion in state and local taxes annually. The report also estimates that if all undocumented workers were removed from Florida’s economy, the state would lose $28.5 billion in economic activity, $12.4 billion in gross state product, and 132,000 jobs.

“SB 1718 is a shortsighted and harmful policy that will hurt Florida’s economy and workforce,” said Alexis Tsoukalas, a policy analyst at FPI and co-author of the report. “It will reduce tax revenues, lower consumer spending, disrupt key industries, and create labor shortages that will affect all Floridians.”

Legal Challenges and Resistance from Advocates

The new law has also faced legal challenges and resistance from immigrant rights advocates and civil liberties groups. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF), and others. They argue that the law violates the U.S. Constitution by infringing on federal authority over immigration matters, discriminating against immigrants based on their national origin or ethnicity, violating their due process and equal protection rights, and interfering with their right to travel.

The plaintiffs also claim that the law is vague and confusing, creating uncertainty and fear among immigrants and their allies. They point out that the law does not define key terms such as “transporting” or “harboring” undocumented immigrants or provide clear guidance on how hospitals should collect and report data on immigration status. They also contend that the law could lead to racial profiling, unlawful arrests, and false accusations of human smuggling.

“The law is a blatant attempt to scapegoat and criminalize immigrants and their supporters,” said Amien Kacou, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida. “It is an attack on the dignity and human rights of our immigrant communities, and we will not stand for it.”

DeSantis’ Political Motives and Future Plans

The new law is widely seen as part of Governor DeSantis’ political agenda and ambitions. DeSantis, who is running for re-election in 2024 and is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2028, has positioned himself as a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and a vocal critic of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. He has blamed the Biden administration for the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and has deployed state law enforcement officers to assist with border security in Texas and Arizona.

DeSantis has also announced plans to expand the scope and reach of the new law in the future. He has proposed to create a state-level version of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enforce immigration laws within Florida. He has also suggested that he would seek to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects some young undocumented immigrants from deportation and grants them work permits, if the U.S. Supreme Court does not strike it down.

DeSantis has defended his immigration policies as necessary to protect the rule of law, public safety, and national security. He has also claimed that they are supported by the majority of Floridians, especially those who are legal immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

“We are a state that welcomes legal immigrants from all over the world who come here based on the premise that they want to be part of America,” he said. “But we also are a state that believes in the rule of law.”

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