By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
As Florida’s governor tries to demonize and evict immigrants – once even shipping them to an island off Massachusetts – farmworker advocates are fighting back in Miami federal court.
They’re attacking a new state law that makes it a felony to bring undocumented immigrants into Florida. The law doesn’t distinguish between transporting people for illegal purposes and for legitimate ones such as farm work.
The advocates say Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to label as “human trafficking” migrant laborers’ regular treks between the fields of Florida and neighboring states as they follow seasonal crops from farm to farm.
This long-established system underpins the state’s $8-billion agricultural industry that largely exists with migrant labor from Mexico and Central and South America.
“Farming in the United States is dependent on an immigrant workforce, largely undocumented, which is less protected and vulnerable to more abuse,” said Yesica Ramirez, general coordinator of The Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF) in Apopka, speaking through an interpreter.
“The undocumented community is the backbone of farming in the U.S.,” said Ramirez. She works with ornamental plants in Central Florida, the hub along with Homestead, of Florida’s horticultural/nursery business that employs an estimated 100,000 people.
Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, representing the nonprofit FWAF, filed a lawsuit challenging the new law, known as SB 1718 (the Senate bill number), on July 17; it had gone into effect July 1.
The suit asks Miami U.S. District Judge Roy Altman to declare the law unconstitutional because only the federal government has the power to regulate immigration. The original defendants were DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox and the state attorneys for all 20 judicial circuits.
DESANTIS JABS ‘BORDER CRISIS’
The FWAF complaint suggests that Florida’s Republican Legislature passed SB 1718 to broadcast an anti-immigrant message from DeSantis, who is running for his party’s presidential nomination.
“Florida is a law-and-order state, and we won’t turn a blind eye to the dangers of [President Joe] Biden’s border crisis,” the complaint quotes DeSantis saying when he announced his 2023 legislative agenda.
“We will continue to take steps to protect Floridians from reckless federal open border policies,” he said.
“SB 1718 is a lot of flash and no substance that, for DeSantis’s campaign purposes, makes him look tough on immigration,” counters Gregory Schell, a lawyer with Southern Migrant Legal Services. He’s not involved in the Miami case.
Similar laws in Georgia and Alabama had minimal impact on their undocumented worker base, Schell said.
“The law won’t be enforced here, it’s a joke,” he said. In Georgia and Alabama “it scared the bejesus out of people and some voluntarily relocated.”
The Florida farmworkers’ complaint says the Eleventh CIrcuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Florida, decided it’s likely that federal law preempts the Georgia and Alabama statutes. The FWAF makes the same argument in the Miami case.
On Dec. 18, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to deter immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. Another lawsuit may be coming soon.
Last week in Miami, Judge Altman took the first significant step in the farmworkers’ case by dropping DeSantis – at his request – from the lawsuit, finding “the Governor is an improper party” because he doesn’t personally enforce SB 1718 against the plaintiffs. They are, in addition to FWAF, two farmworkers and seven other people who could suffer the law’s consequences; all are identified by their initials for security reasons.
TEMP VISAS FOR FARMWORKERS
Opponents of the new state law say it makes an already bad situation worse by sowing confusion and fear about the federal program that allows migrant farm laborers to work in the U.S. legally.
Florida is the nation’s biggest user of the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program. In fiscal year 2023, the state had 51,987 certified positions, or almost 14 percent of the total 378,513, according to the Office of Foreign Labor Certification. California came in second with 40,758 positions.
The H-2A visa program was designed to support an industry that needs outsiders because not enough U.S. citizens want farm jobs and the supply of domestic farmworkers is dwindling.
Employers obtain the visas, allowing farm laborers to stay in the U.S. for a 10-month season. Then they’re supposed to return home for two months.
“It’s an employer’s dream in many ways,” said Schell, the migrant aid lawyer. Though most farm owners presumably follow the rules, if bosses want to exploit workers, the H-2A program doesn’t do much to stop them.
A worker can’t change jobs but must stick with the employer who got their visa – even if conditions and wages are abysmal and there’s a better option elsewhere.
Workers can’t afford to complain, Schell said. “Bosses select who comes in, so if you want to come back next year …” the deal is, accept a bad situation and keep quiet.
‘PEOPLE ARE TERRIFIED’
Susan Rubio Rivera founded MUJER, a social service nonprofit, 27 years ago in Homestead. A third-generation farmworker-turned-activist with a master’s degree in social work administration, she counsels some of the women who nurture plants in the abundant nurseries of southern Miami-Dade County.
“When SB 1718 came into effect, a lot of those women were terrified that they were going to lose their jobs” because the law cracks down on undocumented workers, Rubio Rivera said. Some nursery owners responded by “keeping them in the workforce and cutting their hours to a bare minimum, some as little as 20 hours, so these people suffered a lot.
“They have nowhere else to go,” Rubio Rivera said. She spoke of one woman who has six children “so she’s gonna do whatever needs to get done to survive.”
Advocates for migrant farmworkers say their mobility also is limited by E-Verify, the procedure U.S. employers use to confirm foreign worker eligibility through federal records. Employers who ignore or abuse E-Verify face serious fines, especially in Florida, where SB 1718 requires its use for even small farms with 25 employees.
That means an undocumented worker who’s exploited at Farm A can’t try to work at Farm B without risking deportation when the potential employer runs their name through E-Verify, said Jeannie Economos, FWAF’s environmental health coordinator.
“People are terrified of that,” she said.
Her group holds meetings to inform workers about their rights under SB 1718 and posts Q & As on social media. “But some people don’t have access, so they’re even more afraid of things that maybe they don’t need to be afraid of,” Economos said.
The farmworkers’ suit doesn’t challenge the new law’s E-Verify provision. It does slam SB 1718 for vagueness.
The law says anyone caught transporting an immigrant who “entered the United States in violation of law and has not been inspected by the Federal Government since his or her unlawful entry” can be charged with a felony.
That language “could sweep in all manner of immigrants, including people who are lawfully present in the United States or are in the process of seeking lawful immigration status,” the complaint says. “The statute does not define the term ‘inspected’ and does not explain what it means to be inspected ‘since’ entry.”
From the statute’s wording one might think Florida legislators view immigrants no differently than sides of beef requiring U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection stamps before consumption.
In contrast, the farmworkers’ complaint shows how SB 1718 could entrap the plaintiffs:
There’s A.M., a U.S. citizen who works for a South Georgia nonprofit and drives immigrants across the Georgia/Florida line to see medical specialists in Jacksonville. Undocumented residents depend on others for transportation because they can’t get driver’s licenses.
“A.M. now fears that she will be exposed to felony charges for performing a key aspect of her job, and for doing what she believes to be morally just,” the complaint says.
GOOD DEEDS PUNISHED
And there’s R.M., a U.S. citizen, decorated veteran, Roman Catholic deacon and founder of a Georgia nonprofit “whose mission is to strengthen families in the Hispanic community,” it says.
“Since 1986, he has helped many thousands of immigrants with transportation in his personal vehicle at no cost,” taking trips from Georgia to Jacksonville for asylum interviews, other immigration appointments and state court proceedings.
Now, because of SB 1718, if R.M. happens to do any of those things for an undocumented immigrant, he could be convicted of a felony.
Rubio Rivera of MUJER said she’s seen immigration come full circle since the 1950s, when her grandparents moved from Mexico to Florida. “We were the invisible people in America,” she said.
“I kind of feel like the fear factor back then is similar to what today’s immigrants are feeling,” Rubio Rivera said, “except for the big difference that we could not be deported.”