On a Tuesday morning in early June, a group of construction workers stood outside the Home Depot on North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Standing with them was a 31-year-old man from Honduras named Guillermo.
Guillermo worked with the small crew as it took on projects for contractors across the city and county.
Guillermo, too afraid to share his last name, has lived in Florida for six years. Now he worries he may have to uproot his family in the wake of a new immigration law going into effect July 1. He doesn’t know any of the details, only what he’s been told by others in the community. But he fears that soon he may not be able to get work.
“I have to feed my family,” he says in Spanish. “I don’t have any other choice.”
Guillermo is not alone. As the law becomes reality, immigrants and their advocates across the state fear a draconian crackdown that will turn their adopted home into a police state. This, the fear is, will in turn deprive the state’s lifeblood industries — development, hospitality and agriculture — of much needed workers at a time when many businesses are already struggling to meet demand and service customers.
One of the hardest hit, many worry, will be construction — already stretched thin after years of supply chain and employee shortages and increasing workloads, as developers rush to meet the often overwhelming demand for housing due to population growth.
Economic ruin, critics of the new law say, won’t be far behind.
But just how realistic are these fears?
Is Florida about to lose a massive piece of its workforce because of a new law passed by the legislature?
The answer is nobody really knows. Not yet at least.
There is a growing concern that the fears may outweigh the realities, that the law could wind up being more show than substance and that the reactions to the fears is what is going to create the worker shortages that could wind up crippling businesses.
On both sides of the debate, as June turned to July, an effort was underway to separate fact from fiction and, in doing so, hopefully avoid, or at least mitigate, the worst-case scenario.
“We want to be sure if anybody makes a decision to leave the state based upon the immigration bill, they make it with the accurate information,” says Rusty Payton, CEO and chief lobbyist of the Florida Home Builders Association. “A lot of what they're hearing and being told is not accurate.”
The law causing the concern is SB 1718, approved by Legislators earlier this year. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it May 10.
Among the new requirements is employers with 25 or more employees must use the online employment verification system E-Verify. It also penalizes anyone employing undocumented immigrants and enhances penalties for human smuggling.
Employers who fail to follow the new rules face “the possible suspension and revocation of employer licenses and the imposition of specific penalties on employers that knowingly employ illegal aliens,” the governor’s office says.
The legislation also makes it a third-degree felony for an undocumented immigrant to knowingly use a false ID document to gain employment.
And it prohibits local governments from issuing identification cards to undocumented immigrants and invalidates ID cards issued to them in other states, as well as requiring hospitals to collect and submit data on the costs of providing health care to the undocumented.
State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, who sponsored the bill, says, it is “the strongest state-led anti-illegal immigration bill ever brought forth.”
While that may be true, early concerns, for some, are the new rules will have a chilling effect on the state’s workforce.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association says that while the full impact of the new rules “on Florida residents is difficult to quantify, its impact on the state’s economy is likely to be devastating.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, 772,000 undocumented immigrants live in Florida. Of those, 64% are currently employed, with 109,000 working in the construction industry and 69,000 working in accommodation and food services.
On June 1, a few weeks after DeSantis signed the bill into law and a month before it went into effect, about 7,000 people gathered in Immokalee to protest the new immigration law.
Many of those in attendance were farm workers and others who feared they’d be subject to punishment over a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. As part of the protest, according to chronicling of the event by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which helped organize the protest, 20 business closed during the day.
There were protests in other parts of the state as well, including in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
The idea behind the protests was to highlight what life would be like without immigrants and to show how they are indispensable.
Living without some immigrants may soon be a reality.
Even before the law went into effect, there were already stories of undocumented immigrants fleeing the state in fear of being picked up by the government. A family of undocumented immigrants fled a Naples Park duplex in the dead of night. In Oldsmar, a woman who’d worked at a hotel disappeared for two days before calling family to say she’d moved out of state.
“She was trying to get her papers but didn’t feel it was safe to wait here,” the woman’s sister, Carmen Aguilar, says. “I don’t know if she’ll come back. I hope she does. But I don’t know.”
Putting aside the personal and emotional aspects of the argument, the effect of losing a chunk of the state’s workforce will undoubtedly damage Florida’s economy in a big way, says the Florida Policy Institute, which studies budgets and policies.
In a study on the economic impact of SB 1718, the institute says six industries in the state will feel the biggest hit, including construction, accommodation and food services, retail and agriculture. That’s because nearly 10% of employees — 391,000 — who work in those industries are undocumented.
The study’s authors found that after Georgia passed a similar E-Verify law 12 years ago one farmer lost 300 employees, forcing him to give up working 25% of his 125 acres. It cost him $250,000 a season.
But the damage, the institute says, won’t be just limited to companies employing the undocumented. The six industries made up 25% of the Florida’s GDP in 2019 and the people they employed earned $12.6 billion in wages. Of those wages, 7.3% went toward paying a total of $923 million in state and local taxes.
So, the institute says, not only would these industries lose 10% of their workers, but “as a result, Florida's GDP could drop by $12.6 billion in a single year, or 1.1%.”
“Cutting these workers’ spending power means state and local tax revenue would drop as well,” the authors of the study say.
The last month before the law was activated proved, in one way, that there was good reason for anxiety about some of the consequences. Payton, the head of the homebuilders association, said in mid-June he had heard industry chatter of crews leaving the state and general contractors seeing “significant shortages.”
How big of an effect is hard to quantify because of the sensitive nature of the topic and a concern that public comment could bring unwanted scrutiny. More than a dozen homebuilders, contractors, developers, hotel owners and agricultural firms contacted for this story declined to comment.
The owner of one area public relations firm representing both a national builder and a local one said in a phone call that “they don’t want to touch this.” That was similar to the response to a call with an executive at a local tourism group who said, “we’re just not ready to talk about it.”
While there is a natural reticence to talk, several builder’s groups are trying to break through the noise and get their members — and the workers they employ — information on how the law will work and to defuse some of the charged rhetoric around it.
“The industry has been and continues to work on education,” says Amelia Vasquez, executive officer of the Collier Building Industry Association.
Vasquez’s organization and others are sharing posters in both Spanish and English that attempts to separate fact from fiction.
The idea of the posters is to tamp down worker’s fears and help keep them from leaving the state in a panic.
Payton points to crews in the northern part of the state who may work in Florida in the morning on one project and cross over to Georgia for another in the afternoon. There’s a worry that if there is an undocumented worker on the crew, the company owner or driver could be charged with human trafficking.
That’s not true, he says. The new law, according to the poster “only pertains to persons who knowingly and willingly transport illegal immigrants into the state that have not been inspected by the federal government.”
The poster also points out that the E-Verify system only applies to companies with more than 25 employees and that are hiring permanent workers. “The law does not single out any industry or impact existing employees or independent contractors.”
However things shake out after July 1, whether the worst-case scenario is the reality or if it turns out to be sound and fury signifying nothing, there is likely going to be some impact on the state’s workforce.
And that’s because the harsh reality is, regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, there is a huge dependence on undocumented immigrants in Florida. Whether they clean buildings and hotels, are day laborers on construction sites, are landscapers or are young professionals brought by their parents as infants, the undocumented immigrant plays a big role in the state’s economy. And there is no getting around that.
“I think it will smooth out over time,” Payton says of the impact of the new law. “But maybe I’m wrong.”