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Tampa Bay area organizations are working to help the growing immigrant population

Four people - three women and a man - sit in chairs around a table outside. A tree with small, hanging vases is on the left.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
WUSF's Kerry Sheridan (from left), spoke to Carol Mayo, director of the Hillsborough County Migrant Education Program, and a family about the education of farmworkers and their children in early 2021.

Groups are working to make services and resources available to the growing number of immigrants in the Tampa Bay area.

An influx of Cuban migrants arriving on South Florida’s shores prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency earlier this month.

Hillsborough County is now seeing higher numbers as well — and local organizations are trying to assist them as best as they can.

Elizabeth Aranda is the Director of the University of South Florida’s recently formed Im/migrant Well-Being Research Center.

She said the plight of the Cuban refugees sheds light on how desperate some situations are, forcing many on an emotional and dangerous journey.

“So it's this plight of the refugee,” Aranda said, “of the person who's fleeing a system of political violence, an economic dilapidated system, a situation that becomes so intolerable, that they would risk their lives to undertake this journey.”

She believes more could be done to preserve the humanity and dignity of the migrants.

“I think we need to remember at the end of the day that these are people like you and I, they have lives, they have families,” Aranda said. “And we should think about this as a humanitarian crisis, instead of a political crisis.”

Angela Chaviano works at La Casa Cuba de Tampa. She said the organization strives to help Cuban families who arrive in Tampa in many different ways, providing them with basic necessities, such as clothing, food, and transportation.

But just as important is the help they need navigating the many systems they have to interact with.

“Right now, what they need is just to find a way to fill out the papers, to get ID, and the permit. You know, to get all the normal things to be able to live in this society,” she said.

Chaviano said people are fleeing Cuba in an attempt to find work and freedom, but once they arrive, many have no resources or assistance to start over. This is especially difficult for parents of school-age children.

“There were no [resources] to help the children join and start school because the parents didn't have the documents needed and they didn’t have the way and the knowledge of how to put the children in a school," Chaviano said.

And while adults also need education and medical assistance, Chaviano added that it's the children who need the most help.

RELATED: A Florida Farmworker Talks About Why He Took His Teen Daughter To Work In Fields

That's where people like Carol Mayo come in.

The supervisor of the Hillsborough County Public Schools Migrant Program connects families working in the agriculture and fishery industries to community resources.

But she deals mostly with school-age students who are agriculture workers themselves.

Mayo said the service is available to those 21 years old and under who have not received a high school diploma from their native country or the U.S.

“Our goal is to get them in school, but some of them, like visa workers, [are] not here to go to school," said Mayo. "They're here to work."

Mayo said documentation is not a requirement to qualify for the services. Nothing will be denied to anyone based on their documentation.

And the need continues to grow: Hillsborough school officials said 10,038 immigrant students are enrolled in the district as of Dec. 2022, up from 6,628 at the beginning of the school year just four months earlier.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.