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Florida’s new immigration law previews a DeSantis presidency

The law that takes effect this weekend has already sparked fear — and could carry human and financial costs.

A protester walking with a group along a Florida road carries a sign that reads, “The immigrants came here to make America great.”
Protesters against a new immigration law march along Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers, Florida, on June 28, 2023.
Joseph Agcaoili/AFP 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.

In the first few weeks of May, Yesica Ramirez’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.

Florida’s state legislature had just approved SB 1718, a wide-ranging anti-immigrant law that requires businesses to verify the citizenship status of their employees and increases penalties for transporting undocumented immigrants across Florida’s border, among other restrictions.

Her Orlando-area farmworker organizing group was suddenly fielding what felt like an overwhelming number of calls and texts from concerned neighbors, confused farmworkers, and fearful families. Rumors of immigration raids, of an increased police presence on highways and roads, and hypothetical worst-case scenarios were spreading through chat text chains, word of mouth, and social media.

“There aren’t even words to describe the fear the community had,” Ramirez told me recently. “There was one week where we had an extreme volume of phone calls of people warning that they had seen [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers at very specific spots, at a specific store, for example.”

Ramirez, who works with the Farmworkers Association of Florida, a labor and immigrant rights organization, and her team of about 20 volunteers jumped into action. Their rapid-response group spent much of late May and June individually checking out various reports of immigration officers at different locations around central Florida and talking to fearful folks who had flagged those sightings.

Those reports ended up being false — but for Ramirez, they demonstrated just how anxious and scared the immigrant and mixed-status communities she works with were, and continue to be, as this law takes effect over the weekend.

The mood has steadied since that initial panic. Families, lawyers, and advocates are now in a wait-and-see mode — unsure of what the implementation of this law will look like, how seriously police and other state agencies will enforce new guidelines, and whether businesses will be punished.

“A lot of people, who haven’t already left, are now telling us they are waiting until after July 1 to see what exactly happens, how this law unfolds, and then decide whether to leave the state of Florida,” Ramirez said. “Communities are much calmer now. It’s not back to normal — there’s still a lot of uncertainty ... and we don’t know what to expect.”

SB 1718 goes into effect on Saturday, a little under two months after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it. In that time, videos of empty agricultural fields and protesting truck drivers have filled social media; anecdotal stories of immigrant and mixed-status families leaving the state have spread across news media; and demonstrations and town halls have been held to call attention to the impact this law is having and will continue to have on the state’s agricultural, construction, hospitality, retail, and various administrative industries. Together, those economies contribute about a quarter of the state’s gross domestic product and depend on almost 400,000 undocumented workers to function, according to a report from the Florida Policy Institute.


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DeSantis was the primary sponsor of the legislation, which in its most extreme, preliminary form proposed much more aggressive punishments for those who housed undocumented immigrants, transported them around the state, and employed them. It builds on DeSantis’s growing anti-immigrant persona and policy platform to show what the Republican Party’s ideal immigration policy might look like in practice.

Even now, in the pared-back version of the law that will go into effect this weekend, with its new requirements for business owners and vague efforts to deter undocumented immigrants from living in or entering the state, you can see a vision of the kind of society DeSantis, who is vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, might want to implement for immigrants across the country. Should he make it to the White House, it’s easy to see an administration and country that is inhospitable, hostile, and actively persecuting undocumented immigrants, and by extension, deterring both American citizens and migrants with permission to be here from interacting with those immigrants here without authorization.

Even some Republican state lawmakers — who in early June appeared to try to backpedal on voting for the legislation — have admitted that a main point of the law is to spark panic. At a meeting hosted by Hispanic pastors in Hialeah, state Rep. Alina Garcia (R) told an assembly that “this is a bill basically to scare people from coming to the state of Florida, and I think it’s done its purpose.”

It’s absolutely achieved its purpose. But it may have further-reaching effects on its state.

What SB 1718, the new Florida immigration law, does

The version of SB 1718 that became law is still pretty wide-ranging. The bulk of it deals with how employers with 25 or more employees use e-Verify to hire new workers. E-Verify, a federal system used to confirm whether employees are permitted to work in the US, has been around for a while, but its use isn’t enforced. The law imposes financial penalties for employers: Business owners would be fined $1,000 per day for each undocumented person hired when not permitted, and the state could suspend an employer’s business license if they are caught.

But the law also extends beyond the workplace into other parts of daily life. The law enhances human trafficking and smuggling penalties to make them second-degree felonies, punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison for any person, including a US citizen, to transport five or more undocumented people or a minor into the state of Florida. That extends to relatives, friends, and coworkers.

And it invalidates drivers licenses issued to undocumented immigrants by other states (19 states and DC offer these kinds of licenses or IDs) and cuts funding to in-state organizations, jurisdictions, or groups that issue their own forms of ID to undocumented immigrants (many places use these kinds of community ID to make life easier for people who lack legal status, are experiencing homelessness, or were recently incarcerated).

SB 1718 also contains new provisions for Florida hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect the legal status of patients, calculate the cost of health care for people lacking legal status, and report those totals to the state. That provision has sparked particular concern among immigrant communities, Ramirez and other activists and advocates told me, since it caused some to think they could no longer seek medical care.

Ramirez’s rapid response group has spent plenty of time over the last month talking directly to farm and construction workers, shooting down rumors of what exactly the law does and doesn’t do, and dispelling some of the catastrophizing and misinformation that has been circulating since the law was signed. She said that outright panic has now given way to uncertainty, caution, and slow contingency planning.

“There were rumors that if you were undocumented and tried to withdraw money from the bank that you wouldn’t be able to anymore. We heard from some people who were worried that they’d be deported if they went to hospitals. All of that was false,” Ramirez said. “But we are urging people, if they go to a hospital and are asked a question about their citizenship on a form, not to answer it.”

DeSantis’s office told Vox that the law is “within [the governor’s] authority” to act to defend the country’s borders “when the Biden Administration fails or refuses to do so.”

“We are grateful that the legislature got SB 1718 to the governor’s desk for his signature. SB 1718 counteracts the effects of illegal immigration on Florida, a problem willfully enabled by the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure our nation’s southern border,” press secretary Jeremy Redfern said in a statement. “The media has been deliberately inaccurate about this distinction between legal and illegal immigration to create this very sort of outrage based on a false premise. Any business that exploits this crisis by employing illegal aliens instead of Floridians will be held accountable.”

Florida is already feeling the law’s human and financial costs

Though there aren’t definitive numbers yet, anecdotal evidence abounds to show how Florida is already changing as a result of this law — even before it goes into effect.

Various news reports have already documented worker and family exoduses since the signing of the bill. Martha Gabriel, an organizer with the immigrant workers group We Count in Homestead, Florida, told me that she herself knows of mixed-status families in South Florida that are “getting ready to leave within the day of the law going into effect. Others have already just left this last weekend.”

Since the law was signed and its specifics became more widely known, some truck drivers have boycotted the state and protests have disrupted its agricultural and construction industries. A June 1 national immigrant protest also served as a statewide anti-DeSantis protest, and calls are circulating to repeat those protests on July 1.

The goal of these movements is similar: to show the financial effects the new law will have on the state’s economy, something Republican state lawmakers have also picked up on. At the same Hialeah meeting in which state Rep. Garcia talked about the “purpose” of the law, another lawmaker remarked on his own concerns with how the law is being interpreted.

“This bill is 100 percent supposed to scare you,” state Rep. Rick Roth (R) is recorded on video saying. “I’m a farmer, and I’m mad as hell. We are losing employees. They’re already starting to move to Georgia and other states. It’s urgent that you talk to all your people and convince them that you have resources in their state representatives and other people that can explain the bill to you.”

Gabriel finds that position bewildering. If legislators make the state inhospitable to the kind of labor they need to keep the economy afloat, why complain when those workers leave?

“If our people leave, who’s going to work?,” she said. “Who’s going to build? Who’s going to harvest the fields? Who is going to work hard picking fruits and vegetables? It’s farmworkers, immigrants, who do all that work because no one else wants to do it.”

Business groups in Florida have been sounding this alarm since the legislature began to consider the law. Groups like the American Business Immigration Coalition have warned of the adverse effects a squeeze on labor supply could have on the state and country, with the business group’s Florida state director, Samuel Vilchez Santiago, saying in a recent media briefing that “what that will lead to is Florida consumers seeing the prices of food go up.”

Ramirez has also found herself fielding requests from Florida’s business community. “It’s not only affecting our immigrant communities. It’s hurting our businesses, regular citizens, people who rely on immigrant labor,” she told me. “Employers at nurseries, farms, have come to our offices and asked us, ‘Please go and talk to our employees because they’re scared and want to leave the state of Florida and we don’t want them to go.’ Even before the law, they were short on labor. ‘If they go, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”

Though legislators complained about the law being misconstrued or its enforcement mechanisms exaggerated, they miss the bigger picture. Like many recent legislative moves during the DeSantis governorship, the ambiguity is the point: Fear spreads from the threat the law poses, and its goal is to create as toxic, fearful, and insecure an environment as possible — not just for undocumented immigrants, but for those who share in their communities: neighbors, friends, and family members who have legal status or are citizens.

Ramirez told me she’s already seeing some of these effects, which are damaging the psyche of young people. “We’ve seen children, teenagers, with anxiety and fear and depression because they’re scared of the law — they’re worried about being separated from their parents ... [or of a family member who is undocumented] making plans to move to another state, work from there, and send money back to their families.”

Ramirez, Gabriel, and others also see a political side effect to this new age in Florida. Many of those fearful mixed-status families have been in Florida for up to 20 or 30 years — enough time for American-born children to have reached voting age. “I get that our community might not have the impulse to always want to turn out,” Ramirez said. “But I think that people will understand that if we don’t change political leadership, those in power are going to continue to treat us like this. They will continue to use us for their own ends.”

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