by David Silverberg
A pair of recently-passed anti-immigration and border restriction measures appear set to do significant economic and labor damage to Southwest Florida.
At the state level, On Wednesday, May 10 Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed Senate Bill 1718 into law, imposing new restrictions on immigration in Florida. At a Fort Myers news conference last Friday, May 12, he stated: “The border should be shut down. I mean, this is ridiculous what’s going on. You shut it down. You do need to construct a wall.”
At the national level, Southwest Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-26-Fla.) led the Republican effort in the US House of Representatives to put new restrictions on immigration and revive the building of former President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
That measure, the Secure the Border Act of 2023 (House Resolution (HR) 2), passed in the House last Thursday, May 11, by a narrow vote of 219 to 213.
However, the bill is unlikely to make any headway in the Democratic-dominated Senate and President Joe Biden has promised to veto it.
(A note on terminology for this article: By definition, an “immigrant” is a person who has entered and/or settled in a country legally. All immigrants are, ipso facto, “legal” and technically there is no such thing as an “illegal immigrant” or “illegal immigration.” By contrast, a “migrant” is someone who is migrating from one place to another, whether or not over international borders. An “undocumented migrant” is someone who lacks proper documentation and permissions to travel or settle in a place. An “alien” is someone from another country, whether traveling or in residence, documented or not.)
According to its official summary, Florida’s new state law restricting immigration does the following (the tense has been altered to reflect its passage):
“Prohibits counties and municipalities, respectively, from providing funds to any person, entity, or organization to issue identification documents to an individual who does not provide proof of lawful presence in the United States; specifies that certain driver licenses and permits issued by other states exclusively to unauthorized immigrants are not valid in this state; requires certain hospitals to collect patient immigration status data information on admission or registration forms; requires the Department of Economic Opportunity to enter a certain order and require repayment of certain economic development incentives if the department finds or is notified that an employer has knowingly employed an unauthorized alien without verifying the employment eligibility of such person, etc.”
It appropriates $12 million to an Unauthorized Alien Transportation Program to transport migrants out of Florida.
The bill was introduced by state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-11- Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties) on March 7 and passed 27 to 10 on April 28. When considered in the state House, 17 amendments to alter it were all defeated and it passed on May 2 by a vote of 83 to 36.
Warning that there would be “huge, huge problems” when the pandemic-restrictive Title 42 lapsed, DeSantis said, “You are going to see a massive surge of illegal aliens, you have a duty to ensure that these borders are secure. This is a huge disaster on our hands,” when he signed the bill in Jacksonville on May 10. Ingoglia called it “the strongest state-led anti-illegal immigration bill ever brought forth.”
“Ron DeSantis’ legacy will forever be rooted in the fact that as the governor of the state of Florida, he signed into law the most brutal, inhumane, and anti-American immigration legislation that we’ve seen in the last 30 years of U.S. History,” Andrea Mercado, director of Florida Rising, a state voting rights organization, declared in a written statement. “It is a life-threatening, intimidating, and dangerous political stunt.”
The Hispanic Leadership Fund, a pro-business group based in Washington, DC, also slammed the new law, stating it “has a very serious potential to promote racial profiling and infringe on the rights of not just immigrants, but American citizens and their families,” according to Mario Lopez, the organization’s president.
The law takes effect on July 1.
The federal bill
On the national level, HR 2 does the following:
requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to resume activities to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border;
provides statutory authorization for Operation Stonegarden, which provides grants to law enforcement agencies for certain border security operations;
prohibits DHS from processing the entry of non-U.S. nationals (aliens under federal law) arriving between ports of entry;
limits asylum eligibility to non-U.S. nationals who arrive in the United States at a port of entry;
authorizes the removal of a non-US national to a country other than that individual’s country of nationality or last lawful habitual residence, whereas currently this type of removal may only be to a country that has an agreement with the United States for such removal;
expands the types of crimes that may make an individual ineligible for asylum, such as a conviction for driving while intoxicated causing another person’s serious bodily injury or death;
authorizes DHS to suspend the introduction of certain non-US nationals at an international border if DHS determines that the suspension is necessary to achieve operational control of that border;
prohibits states from imposing licensing requirements on immigration detention facilities used to detain minors;
authorizes immigration officers to permit an unaccompanied alien child to withdraw their application for admission into the United States even if the child is unable to make an independent decision to withdraw the application; imposes additional penalties for overstaying a visa;
and requires DHS to create an electronic employment eligibility confirmation system modeled after the E-Verify system and requires all employers to use the system.
“Border security is national security,” tweeted Diaz-Balart after its passage. [House Republicans] passed my bill HR2 to take back control of the border while the Biden Admin keeps saying the border is secure. Biden admin needs to get its head out of the sand.”
On May 2, the National Migration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group, in an extensive analysis of the bill, called it “an expansive proposal [that] represents an enforcement-only approach to migration-related challenges at the United States-Mexico border and beyond.”
It continued: “In practice, the bill package would severely restrict the right to seek asylum in the US, curtail other existing lawful pathways, place unnecessary pressure on border communities, intensify labor shortages faced by small businesses and essential industries, establish new criminal penalties, and make other significant changes to U.S. immigration law.”
A date for consideration of HR 2 by the Senate had not been set as of this writing.
Impacts on Southwest Florida
While much of the population of Southwest Florida resides on the coast, most of the region’s land is either protected from development or used for agriculture. The agricultural sector is heavily dependent on seasonal migrant labor. The new state restrictions will undoubtedly affect Southwest Florida’s economy, especially in agriculture, construction, hospitality, tourism and services.
When it comes to agriculture, major local crops include tomatoes, strawberries, melons and citrus. Ranching and livestock breeding are also part of the mix. An estimated 6,626 people were employed in Southwest Florida agriculture, according to the US Census as quoted by Florida Gulf Coast University’s 2022 Agriculture Southwest Florida Economic Almanac Series. Most field workers are migrants, whether documented or not, and work seasonally, depending on the crop.
“Everybody is in a panic because nobody knows what’s going to happen,” immigration attorney Gina Fraga told WPTV in Palm Beach.
Denise Negron, the executive director of the Farmworker Coordinator Council of Palm Beach County, told the TV station: “I’ve been hearing that probably they will not be sending their kids to school, and they are afraid to go to work, and it’s sad,” she said.
The stresses on the agricultural labor force come on the heels of the devastation to crops and the agriculture industry in the area caused by Hurricane Ian. Directly in the storm’s path were roughly 375,000 acres of citrus; over 200,000 acres of vegetables; more than 180,000 acres of hay; as well as 95,000 acres of other field crops, like sugarcane, cotton, and peanuts, according to Growing Produce, an industry website.
One local voice calling for a balance between border security, immigration reform and agribusiness is the area’s former congressman, Francis Rooney, a Republican conservative.
“Congress must balance the need for border security with the need for workers. Secure the border, fix our visa and asylum systems, and finally solve the immigration issue instead of using it as a political football,” he tweeted on May 11.
In contrast, the sitting member of Congress representing coastal Lee and Collier counties, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), has been relentlessly on the attack about border security, hammering Republican talking points and raising money for his own reelection, without addressing the impact on the district.
“Democrats ALWAYS wanted this massive surge at the border with no checks or balances AT ALL,” he tweeted on Monday, May 15. “What’s going on now is due to Biden’s recklessness & desire to end all Trump policies that ACTUALLY secured our border. Now they’re scrambling to find fixes to the problem Biden created.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a local farm labor advocacy group, put out a statement on HB 1718 that goes into detail about its possible effects on both labor and the economy. It merits quotation in full:
“We stand firmly against SB 1718, and against the fear, division, and economic hardship it will bring to Florida. The malicious provision requiring public hospitals to ask for immigration status will cruelly discourage people in need of medical attention, including young children, from seeking the care they need. The transportation provision will criminalize everyday Floridians – including travel team coaches and commercial bus drivers, parent chaperones on field trips, and small businesses keeping the state’s fragile economy running – for innocently traveling in and out of our state. The law is inhumane, impossible to fairly enforce, and leaves our communities less safe and more divided than ever.
“When it comes to the law’s inevitable economic impact, lawmakers in Tallahassee have missed critical lessons from recent history. One need only look to the agricultural fields in Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona in 2010 and 2011, full of rotting peaches, peppers, and watermelons, to see the disastrous impact of anti-immigrant legislation on labor supply and tourism. In addition to the contribution immigrants make to our state’s economy every single day, which is easily measurable in ever-rising labor productivity and millions of tax dollars, the authors of this bill also entirely neglect the immeasurable gifts of immigrant families in our schools, our sanctuaries of faith, and our communities everywhere across our state.”
There has been discussion of boycotts of Florida, especially by truckers, particularly in Hispanic social media, although no protests or boycotts have been formally announced by established organizations.
Commentary: Putting the border in perspective
Southwest Florida has a direct stake in the situation on the US southwestern border and US immigration policy but the situation has been overly hyped and politicized to the point where a clear picture is not being presented to the public.
The Republican mantra is that the border is “open,” meaning completely uncontrolled and unregulated. That is simply not true. The United States has considerable controls both at its ports of entry and between them and is adding to them by surging its own resources.
There are “open” borders around the world and one of the most open used to be in Mexico’s south, where there were virtually no controls between Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. People would simply cross the river marking the boundary with Mexico on rafts, while truckers on the bridge crossing the river would bribe guards to let unexamined loads go through. That border has now been tightened up, thanks to US-Mexican agreements.
The purpose of rational border control is to facilitate legitimate trade and travel and keep illegal goods and unauthorized people out. US trade with Mexico was worth $614.5 billion in 2019, a commercial flow that neither the United States or Mexico want to cut off, which is what would happen if DeSantis had his way and closed the border.
While tensions between the United States and Mexico date back to Mexico’s independence in 1821, they were deliberately ratcheted up by Donald Trump during his candidacy in 2015.
In his very first speech as a candidate he accused Mexicans of “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He painted a picture that has persisted to this day and has not changed for his followers or in the minds of millions of Americans.
Trump’s solution was a brick and mortar wall along the US-Mexican border, which he proved unable to build during his time as president, even with a Republican-controlled Congress. The sections that were erected are already crumbling and corroding.
However, the mirage of a completely sealed, impermeable, walled border through which not a molecule passes continues to mesmerize MAGAs, Republican lawmakers as well as Trump, DeSantis and Diaz-Balart (whose parents came to the United States as refugees from Castro’s Cuba and whose aunt was Fidel Castro’s first wife). This delusional vision is being promoted in HR2 and on the campaign trail as candidates jostle for the 2024 presidential nomination.
What is happening at the border with Mexico is a surge of migrants seeking asylum that has overwhelmed many existing border resources. It needs to be pointed out, though, that asylum seekers are not migrants attempting to cross the border illegally or covertly. They are applying for asylum through procedures the United States has established. When Title 42 ended, contrary to the apocalypse that was feared, the number of applicants dropped by half and applicants were required to apply through an online application or face stiff penalties.
Asylum-seekers are now being processed and sent around the country for adjudication. Illegal border crossers are facing five-year penalties if caught.
Ultimately, the issues of border security and immigration are inextricably intertwined. Until there is comprehensive immigration reform, including a rational guest worker program that works for both labor and business, the crisis will continue. The US Congress came very close to bipartisan agreement on reforms in 2007 and 2013 but both failed in the face of intransigent opposition. The day may come when another effort is made.
The current surge needs to be put into context because the United States is not unique. About 2.3 percent of the world’s population—184 million people, including 37 million refugees—live outside their country of nationality, according to the World Bank.
There is a global south-to-north movement of people seeking better lives, simple refuge, or fleeing climate change and life-threatening situations. In an effort to enter Europe, waves of African migrants have attempted to overwhelm the border controls of the two remaining Spanish possessions in North Africa, the cities of Ceuta and Melilla. In the Mediterranean Sea, migrants from the Middle East and northern Africa have set out on rickety, overcrowded boats to reach Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta. In Asia, poverty in Bangladesh and oppression in Myanmar have led people to flee those countries. Wars in Ukraine, Syria, and Sudan have led to massive refugee flows that directly impact neighboring countries, which try to cope as best they can while providing humanitarian aid.
Around the world, people are on the move toward better lives, greater freedom and simple safety. The United States is no exception.
What is complicating the American situation is the continuing MAGA view of migrants as criminals and rapists threatening the white population physically, politically and demographically.
It also reflects a deliberate attack on American confidence in the power of rationality and the strength of American values. In the past, Americans had confidence that their democracy, their values and their freedoms were so compelling that they could absorb and convert immigrants into loyal, productive Americans. Now, they want to exclude them on the basis of race and national origin. They no longer believe that America is an idea all can embrace; to them it’s a club that should exclude everyone but themselves.
In the short term, Florida’s attempted exclusion of immigrants will work to its detriment and at a cost to its economy and businesses. It is only with time that it will learn just how deep, painful and costly it will prove—and soon, Southwest Florida will be among the first regions to feel those effects.
Editor’s note: From 2004 to 2012 the author served as editor of the magazine Homeland Security Today, which extensively covered border security and policy. A three-part series on Mexico’s drug cartel wars, their history and causes that he conceived, organized and edited, “Savage Struggle on the Border,” won the 2010 National Gold Award for Best Feature Series from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. In 2014 he was also founding editor of the BorderNewsNetwork.com, an online effort to cover news of all the world’s borders.
Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on May 17, 2023.