Florida’s new tough law against employing undocumented immigrants has generated waves of fear among foreign nationals who work at hotels, restaurants, agricultural fields and construction sites around the state.
A number of immigration and employment lawyers and economists are forecasting an exodus of some degree from Florida to other states. In the meantime, they say, consumers may well see a rise in prices as employers increase wages to replace workers who vacated their jobs.
The law targets illegal immigration into Florida by imposing more stringent employment requirements on businesses and creating some of the strongest penalties in the country.
Already, some legal professionals and observers are hearing of worker plans to move to other states, an exodus that could damage the state’s labor market. .
“What’s going to happen is illegal immigrants are going to leave the state of Florida because it’s hard for them to find a job here,” said Monica Escaleras, who chairs the economics department at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business. “That’s going to hurt our economy, like it or not.”
She said the cost of doing business in hospitality, construction and agriculture is likely to go up as the worker pool diminishes.
Some employers will likely try to obtain work visas for immigrants, she added, but “that takes time.”
Consumer services could also diminish as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic. In hotels, housekeeping services might be reduced. In restaurants, fewer tables might be available.
Filling a void?
Nonetheless. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected by political observers to announce a 2024 run for the White House next week, insists the state needed to engage in self-help to curb undocumented immigration. The Biden Administration, he insists, has failed to control inbound migration over the nation’s Southwest border..
“The Biden Border Crisis has wreaked havoc across the United States and has put Americans in danger,” DeSantis said in a statement after signing the new legislation into law May 8. “In Florida, we will not stand idly by while the federal government abandons its lawful duties to protect our country. The legislation I signed today gives Florida the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, fighting back against reckless federal government policies and ensuring the Florida taxpayers are not footing the bill for illegal immigration.”
The new law’s provisions are as sweeping as state businesses have faced in years. They include:
- Employers with 25 or more workers must use the federal government’s E-Verify system for new hires starting July 1. It’s an internet-based system that compares information from a worker-generated Form I-9 with records kept by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. Those agency records are supposed to confirm that a person is authorized to work in the U.S.
- A fine of up to $1,000 a day could be imposed until the employer is in compliance.
- Employers may not continue to employ an undocumented individual once they learn the person is here illegally. According to state law, it’s illegal to knowingly employ, hire, recruit, or refer any person who does not have authorization to work in the United States.
- Employers could face suspension or revocation of state licenses and be compelled to repay economic development incentives received from the state.
- Undocumented immigrants using false identification could be charged with a third-degree felony and face a maximum of five years in prison, $5,000 fines, and five years of probation.
- The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will be deployed to help with audits of employment verifications.
- Transporting a person living in the country illegally across state lines into Florida is a third-degree felony.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center based in Washington, D.C., estimated that Florida had 775,000 unauthorized immigrants living in the state, a figure that constituted 5.8% of the workforce. The center has not compiled data since then, but its survey ranked Florida third in the nation behind California at 2.2 million, and Texas at 1.6 million.
The national figure was 10.7 million, a decline from a high of 12.2 million in 2007.
Few believe the inbound population has eased since 2016. If anything, the unauthorized population has gone up as political and economic turmoil has gripped Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and most Central American nations, among others.
“Migration has not really stopped,” said Hollywood employment lawyer Dana Gallup of the Gallup Auerbach law firm. “It wouldn’t surprise me if that (Florida) figure was over a million at this point.”
Gallup and other lawyers in the immigration and employment fields are receiving a surge of client calls about what the law will have in store for workers and employers.
Renata Castro of The Castro Legal Group, an immigration law firm with offices in Coral Springs and Orlando, said her firm received a volume of calls in three days that it normally fields in a month.
Many people who work in construction and hospitality are taking whole families to states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and North and South Carolina.
“They just feel they will be safer outside of Florida,” she said.
“It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in Ron DeSantis’s base — all groups that have relied on undocumented labor,” she added.
Meanwhile, July 1, the date the law takes effect, “will be a very eventful date,” Castro said. It’s 45 days before the school year begins, and an unknown number of immigrant children may well be absent from class.
“That is one of the untold aspects of the law which really concerns me,” she said.
Unknowns for employers
The business community, traditionally an ally of the Republican Party and the governor, was not sanguine about the law as it wound its way through the Legislature. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which closely monitors how new laws impact the state’s business community, named the immigration law in a recent website article as one of the proposals it sought to “mitigate.”
“The Florida Chamber worked endlessly to defeat or mitigate efforts to drive additional litigation, create new regulations, or increase costs on Florida businesses,” according to the article, which suggested the chamber’s efforts helped cut small business some slack with the immigration law.
“The immigration bill that ultimately passed exempts small businesses of 25 employees or less, allows companies to cure a violation before penalties are assessed, and removes criminal penalties and citizen enforcement,” the chamber said.
The chamber did not respond to an emailed request seeking comment about the law’s ramifications for employers.
Ruth Vafek, a labor and employment lawyer for Berger Singerman in Tallahassee, said employers will have to adjust to using the federal E-Verify system, which is designed to tell businesses whether their prospective new hires are legal or not.
One potential problem: Reliability. E-Verify was out of service on Thursday due to “intermittent system outages during case creation,” the government website informed visitors. “As a result, users may experience system timeouts and increased processing times when creating and submitting cases.”
Employers were advised to “continue to complete and retain a Form I-9 for every person hired to work for pay in the U.S. within the required timeframes.”
Vafek wondered whether the state law’s provision requiring businesses employing 25 people or more to use E-Verify “means 25 employees in Florida or multi-state employers.”
Scott Bettridge, chair of the immigration practice at the law firm of Cozen O’Connor in Miami, said one of the bigger concerns he’s tried to explain to clients is the insertion of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into the auditing process. Historically, that’s been the province of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Now it’s FDLE,” he said. “That’s never been done before. I think that is one of the most sweeping sections of the bill — to turn over random audits of I-9s to a state department.”
Peter Dyga, CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, Florida East Coast Chapter, said construction will undoubtedly feel ripple effects.
“There’s no doubt this is going to have an impact on construction,” he said. “This is only an issue because of the federal government’s failure to act. They’re the ones letting people into the country.”
“The failure of the federal government to act causes problems at the state level,” he added.
“You either have to stop the people from coming into the country or you have to give them authorization to work. One of the two has got to give.”
In the interim, companies that say they have been conducting business the right way argue they are being penalized by the surge of migrants at the Southwest border.
A Sunrise firm that serves as a matchmaker between foreign workers and U.S. employers said its operations have been hampered by lengthy delays for legally processing inbound workers from other countries. Company officials say they have advised their clients they support most of the state law for its emphasis on helping to weed out unauthorized workers.
David Espinal, general director of Global Express Recruiting, said one client has 150 to 200 people waiting in their country “to do this the correct way at the consulate.”
Added Carlos Gonzalez, the company’s legal director: “It’s very frustrating for the people who are wanting to make it in the right way through the right channels.” Some clients have applications dating back to 2020.
Still, Gallup, the Hollywood employment attorney, suggested there could be grounds for a constitutional challenge from businesses or trade associations against the Florida law.
“There is a doctrine of preemption” he noted, where federal law in the area of immigration preempts state law. “I think there is a credible argument,” Gallup said, that immigration “is not an area where the state should be involved.”
No federal reform in sight
Immigrant advocates argue the chaos is largely the result of a nation that hasn’t truly reformed its immigration system in 40 years. And it’s unfair, they say, to rely on crackdowns to ease the pressure on that system.
“We have to realize where we are traditionally as a state,” said Thomas Kennedy, a spokesman for the Florida Immigrant Coalition based in Miami. “There are so many push-and-pull factors that are bringing people here.”
Millions have migrated to Florida over the years to flee political and religious persecution and economic deprivation in multiple countries. At the same time, businesses statewide have heavily relied on migrant workers.
“Business interests have been dependent on immigrants who have traditionally come to the state and fueled that economic growth,” he said.. “How do you think your building was being built? How do you think the food at your supermarket is being sold at affordable prices?”
He added there are more than 700,000 “mixed-status” families living in Florida, meaning some members are documented while others are not.
“To me I don’t want to live in a society where the solution to this problem is ‘let’s make their lives as miserable as possible,’” Kennedy said. “To me I don’t think that’s an acceptable solution.”
Staff writer David Lyons can be reached at [email protected]
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of Castro Legal Group.