clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ron DeSantis’s immigration law is already leading to worker shortages

Dozens of videos on social media show empty construction sites and farms even before a new law goes into effect.

DeSantis points at the camera. A microphone id held in front of him.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a local TV reporter’s question in May 2021 in Miami.
Carl Juste/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

The videos from Florida aren’t hard to find: Dozens of clips of empty fields, abandoned construction sites, and scores of truck drivers calling for boycotts of the state have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok and Twitter over the last month. The common thread? Fear and frustration over the state’s newest anti-immigrant law, signed a week ago by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, which mandates that businesses with 25 or more employees verify the citizenship status of workers through the federal online portal E-Verify or face stronger penalties, among other new restrictions.

The new law, which goes into effect on July 1, is the latest move by DeSantis to capitalize on immigration politics as he prepares for a likely but as-yet-unannounced 2024 presidential campaign. The law, one of the most stringent state immigration measures in the US, seems intended to contrast President Joe Biden’s handling of immigration policy as the controversial pandemic-era health rule Title 42 expired last week. But the impact of the bill, critics say, will amount to a wide-ranging and intrusive crackdown on the state’s large immigrant communities, which stand to face the brunt of the new rules.

Florida is home to about 800,000 undocumented immigrants, and many work in the kinds of businesses that would be impacted by the law, known as SB 1718. Many of those affected are also members of mixed-status families — where a son or daughter, for example, might be a US citizen while their parents are not. The bill’s impact extends beyond the workplace to health care and highways: Even family members could be targets of law enforcement under a new provision that punishes anyone who transports an undocumented person “knowingly and willfully” into Florida across state lines.

The law also requires Florida hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect the immigration status of patients and calculate and report the cost of health care for undocumented people to the state; it no longer permits undocumented people to use driver’s licenses issued from other states and prohibits state ID cards to be issued to them.

Combined, these provisions may also deal a devastating blow to Florida businesses that rely on migrant labor, as it may force workers and their families to flee Florida, Samuel Vilchez Santiago, the Florida state director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, told Vox.

“The narrative that immigrants are not welcome here is going to have a huge impact on our business community — in particular industries such as construction, hospitality, health care, and agriculture — because they rely solely or primarily on migrant labor. As fear becomes the norm in immigrant communities, a lot of these migrant workers will start leaving the state and looking somewhere else,” Vilchez Santiago said. “And there is a lot of fear in migrant communities across the state.”


Acres and acres, tons and tons, of rotting food in Florida fields. FARM WORKERS ARE NO LONGER SHOWING UP TO WORK. LET’S STAND IN SOLIDARITY AND BOYCOTT FLORIDA, BOYCOTT FLORIDA’S ORANGE JUICES AND PRODUCE!! #Florida #boycottflorida #floridastate #farmworkers

♬ Immigrants (We Get The Job Done) - K'naan & Snow Tha Product & Riz MC & Residente

The law was already causing panic across Florida before DeSantis signed it. In South Florida, reporters with a local CBS News affiliate tracked empty construction sites across Miami-Dade County and spoke with construction workers who said that many of their coworkers were not showing up to work because they feared deportation. An NBC affiliate interviewed farmworkers in South Florida considering moves out of the state because of fear of persecution.

DeSantis’s office referred Vox to comments the governor made during a press conference this week. “When we have something like an E-Verify, that’s a tool to make sure that longstanding Florida law is enforced,” DeSantis said. “You can’t build a strong economy based on illegality.”

Gina Fraga, an immigration attorney in Palm Beach, told Vox that she knows of many families preparing moves out of the state because of “panic” over the law. Undocumented workers she knows in the construction, landscaping, and agricultural business are now receiving notices of termination because of the law, which includes strict human trafficking punishments that don’t make exceptions for mixed-status families, or for those who came to the US as children and are covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The penalties under SB 1718 are severe: Businesses that fail to use E-Verify would be fined $1,000 per day and the state would suspend an employer’s license if they are caught employing an undocumented person. The law also enhances human trafficking and smuggling penalties for people, including US citizens, making it a second-degree felony, punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison, to transport five or more undocumented people or an undocumented minor into the state of Florida.

DeSantis has called it an “honor to usher this bill through the process” and said it should serve “as the model for the nation to combat this crisis created by our very own President.”

Fraga, who volunteers with the Farmworker Coordinating Council, a nonprofit advocacy group for agricultural workers, said that the harsher punishment for crossing state lines is a direct attack against farmworkers because of the seasonal nature of their jobs. “Depending on the veggies, they travel to South Carolina, to Georgia — so they’re scared now, and a bunch of them are moving to Georgia, and they’re planning on not coming back to Florida,” she said. “That means everyone is going to be affected in our grocery stores in terms of price because nobody wants to do these jobs.”

And all this fear and confusion has been recorded online, through various kinds of clips showing workers leaving their jobs after learning of the new law’s restrictions. Other videos show truck drivers calling for boycotts of Florida because of the threat crossing a state border would mean for them.


it might be the best time to get into construction work in Florida


Those calls for boycotts have been compiled by independent journalist Arturo Dominguez on Twitter, and have been shared by Democratic politicians criticizing the new state law: “Ron’s ‘woke’ war will cause prices to increase on all goods and services. Congrats Ron on tanking Florida’s economy and creating inflation,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, a former agriculture commissioner, tweeted over the weekend.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also shared Dominguez’s thread, arguing that “the US has such deep needs right now, particularly in labor. Yet policymakers (of ALL stripes) take our immigrant communities for granted. No más. Time to stop biting the hands that feed.”

Still, the law isn’t in effect just yet, and there may be legal challenges raised against it, Fraga said. And just how much of an economic effect this new law will have on Florida is unknown — though anecdotally, business owners and employers seem to be bracing for significant churn in the labor force at a time when Florida has a near record-low unemployment rate and tight labor market. “The reality is Florida needs workers,” Vilchez Santiago said. “The only way we can keep our economy moving is by ensuring that our businesses have access to the labor they need.”