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Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration divides the economy

 Maria is an undocumented farm worker in Florida.
Talia Blake
/
90.7 WMFE News
Maria is an undocumented farm worker in Florida.

WMFE’s Talia Blake continues our series Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide with a look at the cost Florida's new immigration laws have on businesses and undocumented workers.

Many businesses in Florida are navigating murky waters as they try to figure out the state’s new immigration laws. WMFE’s Talia Blake continues our series Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide with a look at the cost to businesses and undocumented workers.

For this story, we are using only the first name of the undocumented immigrant we spoke with. Her name is Maria.

Maria's search for safety

Maria and her husband fled their home in Tamaulipas, Mexico in 2016 because of violent crime and drugs.

Seven years later, she now works at a produce farm in Apopka. For Maria, everything is different here.

"I finished my studies in psychology. I worked for a while with a group of women," she said. "I liked my work a great deal, but I was frightened because of the crimes in the city."

Maria came to the U.S. on a tourist

visa to visit her siblings and she never left.

She says since arriving here, she's been working her way through the citizenship process.

So far, she says it has cost her $4,000, and she will have to spend at least another $3,000 more to finish.

Maria said that while she makes more than minimum wage that type of money doesn’t come easy or without sacrifice.

"Currently, I am making $14 an hour. But everything else has increased. So it's very difficult to live here."

When she is not at work, Maria volunteers with Hope Community Center and Esperanza Behavioral Health and Services.

She said that volunteer work brings much pleasure to her life, but when it comes to the recent changes to Florida's immigration law, she said it's emotionally destabilizing.

"At risk are not just myself and other undocumented people, but also business owners are at risk for suffering economically."

Paying and retaining

According to ZipRecruiter, an online job site, the $14 an hour that Maria makes is on par with the average for migrant workers here in Florida.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago, Florida director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said it’s difficult to nail down exactly how much undocumented people are paid because it happens under the table.

However, he said there’s no doubt they make less.

"The main reason why these businesses are utilizing undocumented workers is because there's just simply not enough documented workers who are willing to do the work particularly when it comes to agriculture and construction industries," said Vilchez Santiago.

But, with Florida’s new immigration laws, businesses may not be willing to take the risk of hiring undocumented workers.

Owners have also expressed concern about their targeted workforce being scared away due to Florida’s new immigration laws.

 Maria separates the plant to pot in a tray of soil.
Talia Blake
/
90.7 WMFE news
Maria separates the plant to pot in a tray of soil.

Supporters of the law like Attorney John Quinones say that’s a good thing. "Yeah, we do need to use E-Verify. We need to make sure that people that are here are working legally."

Part of the changes to Florida's immigration law expanded the use of E-Verify, the federal online system where employers can confirm whether prospective employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

All businesses in the state with 25 or more employees are now required to use E-Verify for all new hires.

Vilchez-Santiago said that has some farm owners nervous for the next growing season in October as some undocumented farmhands are temporary workers.

"They come in for six months and they go somewhere else for the next six months. The problem is they have to rehire them every time they come back. So the people that had been hired in this last agriculture season, technically if they're undocumented, they will not be able to be rehired by the next agricultural season because of the new law."

He said when Georgia passed a similar law expanding E-Verify in 2013, the agriculture sector experienced a significant loss in revenue.

"The undocumented workers who work their fields actually ended up not coming back to town. There was one particular farmer, they shared his story and how hundreds of his undocumented workers did not return. And that ended up causing a loss of $250,000 for his farm, just the year after this law was implemented in Georgia."

H2A Visa program

Many agriculture businesses utilize the H2A Visaprogram to fill the gaps in their workforce.

It is a temporary, nonimmigrant visa program for agricultural workers.

Florida Fruits and Vegetable Association’s Jamie Fussell says that even before SB1718, businesses here struggled to find enough migrant workers. "In 2010, the H2A program was in existence, but Florida certified around 4,400 workers. Last year, Florida certified over 50,000 workers."

But, Vilchez-Santiago said that the program can be costly. "It costs approximately about $4,000 to sponsor a work visa, but depending on the company and how big it is, it may even cause up to $8,000 to $9,000."

Vilchez-Santiago said when businesses pay more in labor, the costs begin to trickle down into food and housing prices for everyone.

"So as businesses here have to increase their administrative costs to bring in new workers from abroad, many through the visa program, the reality is that people who will pay the price is every single consumer."

But, the H2A Visa program comes with its own issues, according to Jamie Fussell. "Sometimes housing becomes an issue, because an employer must have that ready to go at least a month in advance of getting these workers."

Affordable housing is already an issue for many in the sunshine state as the population continues to grow, which makes that problem unique to Florida.

Fussell said any other problems need to be addressed at the federal level.

"And those are really about access to the program, and wage stability. By wage stability, we just mean that the wages are regulatory based, they're based on rule. And Florida last year, for example, saw a 15% increase in its regulated wage from 2022 to 2023. Just some way to stabilize those jumps, so there's not huge spikes year to year. Florida growers were in the midst of their seasons already meaning they've already entered into contract with their purchasers for where their crops are gonna go. And so it's a lot harder to absorb those higher wage costs."

He adds that Florida growers can have a hard time getting access to the program because applications for a season longer than 10 months will likely be denied.

"Florida is a state which can for the most part grow crops year round. We consider the summer as off months because it's a lot hotter and there's a lot more volatile weather, but we do have crops that could touch 10, to even 11 months. If you're applying for an 11 month H2A contract, you'll be denied because the agencies will view you as having a year round need. If you have a year round need your need is no longer temporary or seasonal."

Companies that are looking to fill their workforce before the next growing still have time to apply to the program, according to Fussell.

"The process is actually an expedited application process, though it is very cumbersome. For applications, we can submit as early as 75 days from an employer's date of need, which is when they're going to start the harvesting work, up to 60 days before it. So, you've really got two to three months ahead of your start date to navigate this entire application process."

 Plants beginning the grow process at the farm where Maria is employed.
Talia Blake
/
90.7 WMFE News
Plants beginning the grow process at the farm where Maria is employed.

He said employers who are using the program for the first time can speed up that process to 45 days.

But, if that's not an option, Samuel Vilchez Santiago said there are local efforts to help undocumented workers.

"On our end, the American Business Immigration Coalition is proposing the Biden Administration uses it parole program and parole power given by the laws of the land, to create a new parole program that allows for undocumented immigrants in the United States that have been contributing to our economy for a long time, 20-30 years, to be able to access a work permit that allows them to work and circumvent a lot of the policies in this state law."

Although Maria is not eligible for the H2A Visa, she said her employer is looking for ways to help their undocumented workers.

"Our bosses are saying that they would like to help and get some kind of permit so that we can continue working here."

She said she plans to stay in Florida "until either the ship goes down or we find a solution."

Once she's fully documented, Maria said she'd like to get back in the field of psychology.

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Talia Blake