MIAMI: Benjamin Perez cleans houses in Miami for a living. Like tens of thousands of others in the Florida workforce, he toils without legal papers. The future of this off-the-books labor force today sits in limbo due to a recently approved immigration law.
Conservative Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on May 10 signed what he called the “strongest anti-illegal immigration bill in the nation” to bar undocumented workers from taking jobs in the southern US state. Starting July 1, businesses with 25 or more employees will be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the legal status of all new employees.
Businesses would face heavy fines for defying the law and employing undocumented migrants. Perez, 40, has lived and worked in the United States for two decades but finds his future uncertain. He left his native Mexico looking to earn more as a skilled mason. An injury caused him to change jobs. He lives in downtown Miami with his Nicaraguan wife and a nephew of hers, Joel Altamirano. All three work. None of them enjoy legal status. “For those of us who come without papers, the desire to work remains but the paths to finding a job have become narrower,” says Perez, who asked to use a pseudonym lest migratory authorities catch him.
“The American Dream is just that—a dream,” he adds. “The government corners us more each day. This time, it is without mercy. We practically are worthless.”
Florida, the third most-populous US state, has 22.2 million residents, and 772,000 of them are undocumented migrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute think tank. Many of them work in vital sectors of the state economy such as agriculture, construction and hospitality.
Blocking them will have severe economic consequences, warns Samuel Vilchez, director in Florida of the American Business Immigration Coalition, which advocates for better integration of migrants in the economy. “It really targets our businesses and hinders them from their ability to create new jobs… and provide the services they’re seeking to provide,” Vilchez said.
“It goes against what we know is good for the economy, and it will have devastating effects on Florida.” According to the Florida Policy Institute, the state’s economy could potentially drop by $12.6 billion, or 1.1 percent, if all undocumented workers were removed from payrolls. Florida also would face losses in state and local tax revenue and reduced overall economic activity.
Uncertainty created by the new law already ripples at job sites even though it has yet to go into effect and does not apply to existing employees or mandate that known undocumented workers be turned in. “Where I work, a lot of people have left. They’ve moved to other states. There’s a lot of fear about the law,” says Altamirano (another pseudonym), a 38-year-old construction worker.
DeSantis, who looks likely to challenge former president Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination, has gained traction by pushing a conservative agenda on issues like education, abortion and illegal immigration. Last week, he accused Democratic President Joe Biden of “reckless border policies” and touted the new law as a tool to combat crime and drug trafficking associated with illegal immigration. Perez and Altamirano deplore the fact that authorities lump them in with criminals, and complain that they are victims of DeSantis’s political ambitions. “All the politicians want their share of the cake and we pay the cost,” Perez says. “We came here to work, send money to our families, spend it here and pay taxes. This is unfair.”
If the law prevents them from holding jobs, they say they will leave Florida and start from scratch elsewhere in the United States. They will adapt, once again. Returning to their home countries is not in their plans. Family members rely on their remittances and, in Altamirano’s case, returning to live under Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government in Nicaragua is untenable. Perez dreams that the country where he has toiled for so many years would one day officially recognize his presence. “For the United States, we don’t exist,” he says. “The United States was built by people from all over, and I am one of them.” — AFP