Florida activists draw on Southern history in fight against new anti-immigrant law

Image depicts a crowd of protesters carrying signs and marching in downtown Atlanta. In the foreground, a sign reading "No HB87, Hate Hurts Georgia" can be read.

Floridians are facing the state's harshest anti-immigration legislation to date, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 1718 into law in May. The law places several strict restrictions on undocumented immigrants, harkening back to a ream of anti-immigration legislation passed in the 2010s in states across the South. At the time, the legislation sparked outrage and protests, as depicted here in Georgia in 2011 in response to HB 87. (Photo by Caitie Leary via Flickr.)

In Homestead, Ft. Myers, Orlando and Tallahassee, protesters held colorful, multilingual homemade posters and banners. They carried flags and megaphones. "Aquí estamos y no nos vamos," "Somos la fuerza de este país," "Dejanos vivir en paz," the banners read. "We are here and we're not leaving," "We are the strength of this country," and "Let us live in peace."

United under the scorching Florida sun, hundreds of workers and advocates took to the streets last month to protest Senate Bill 1718 — the state's harshest anti-immigration law to date.

The law, which went into effect on July 1, targets undocumented workers through strict restrictions on mobility, government-issued IDs, employment, and medical care. In the weeks since, the state has seen an eruption of protests, boycotts, labor strikes — and most recently, a federal lawsuit challenging the policy. 

Anti-immigration legislation is not new to Southern states. In 2010, a ream of severe laws were passed by state legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina shortly after Arizona passed one of the most comprehensive and strict anti-immigration measures of its kind. At the time, through protests and legal challenges, civil rights activists pushed to overturn provisions in these laws, many of which ultimately failed.

Now, in the Sunshine State, advocates are making their message clear: Immigrants are essential to the fabric of the Floridian community.

"¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" WeCount!, a South Florida workers' organization, tweeted on July 2. "We're united and we're fighting for the Florida we all deserve."

A breakdown of the law

Proposed in February and signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in May, SB 1718 includes several provisions targeting undocumented immigrants. The law requires private businesses with 25 or more employees to use E-Verify, a federal system that checks an employee's documentation status. The consequences for businesses that fail to check their employees' statuses using E-Verify can include fines of $1,000 per day until they provide proof of compliance, as well as the potential suspension of their business license. 

The law also affects necessary functions of daily life for undocumented immigrants by invalidating out-of-state driver's licenses issued exclusively to undocumented people. If found driving without a valid license, undocumented immigrants will receive a citation. Additionally, the law cuts funding for local governments and organizations that issue their own form of identification — known as community IDs

"We encourage everyone to let their loved ones know: If you are undocumented, do not, unless otherwise necessary, do not drive in the state," said Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC). Petit spoke during a June 13 town hall meeting attended by over 200 members of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a national coalition of grassroots immigration organizations. 

SB 1718 also has wide-reaching impacts for those who are documented. For example, the law makes it a third-degree felony to "knowingly and willfully" transport an undocumented person into the state, punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. The transportation of a minor into the state or committing five or more such offenses is a second-degree felony, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 15 years in prison. 

The ACLU of Florida stated that this provision of the law is among the most harmful given its potential to increase racial profiling and that the legislation amounts to an "abuse of state power."

"This type of policy encourages racial profiling and discrimination because it supports inquiries related to the nationality, citizenship, or immigration status of people they interact with in everyday life," the ACLU of Florida said. "Such suspicions are likely to be prompted by the way someone looks, their accent, where they or their family come from, or other racially or culturally motivated assumptions and stereotypes." 

The law also requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients and emergency room visitors about their immigration status. While patients can decline to share, the cost of care and total number of patients — both documented and undocumented — must be reported to the state. 

"We are already seeing undocumented immigrants being very hesitant to access health care," Petit said. "Now knowing that their immigration status will be requested, it will add more fear … and a decline in the use of preventive care." 

'It's 100% meant to scare you': Effects trickle in 

Across social media, videos show empty agricultural fields and abandoned construction sites — an alleged result of workers' fears since SB 1718 was signed into law. According to news reports, many immigrants and mixed-status families have left the state all together. 

More than one in five Florida residents are immigrants, the American Immigration Council reports. And, according to the Migration Policy Institute and 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, over 770,000 undocumented immigrants make their home in the state. Immigrants make up more than a fourth of the state's labor force, with the largest share of workers in critical industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. 

According to the Florida Policy Institute, non-agricultural industries likely to face the most significant impacts due to the E-Verify provisions of the new law include construction, administrative and waste management services, accommodation and food services, retail trade, and other services. Around 390,000 undocumented workers are employed in these sectors and the agriculture industry, accounting for a fourth of Florida's gross domestic product, or $275 billion, in 2019. 

Between 150,000 and 200,000 seasonal and migrant farmworkers and their families — who travel from other states to work in Florida each year — are impacted by the legislation as well, the Institute notes. 

In a June 5 meeting organized by the Hispanic Ministers Association of South Florida to discuss SB 1718, a handful of Republican state lawmakers attempted to reassure attendees about the impacts of the legislation, while seemingly diminishing the law's severity. In a video clip posted to Twitter by community organizer Thomas Kennedy, Rep. Alina Garcia (R) said the purpose of the bill is "basically to scare people away from coming to the state of Florida," and that it had done its purpose. The representative, who voted in favor of the bill, also claimed that SB 1718 "really doesn't have any teeth." 

Another speaker, Rep. Rick Roth (R), who voted for the bill, reiterated that the legislation is "100% supposed to scare you." Despite his role in helping to pass SB 1718, Roth simultaneously urged immigrants and their families to stay in the state as he bemoaned the loss of workers.

"I'm a farmer and the farmers are mad as hell," Roth said. "We are losing employees that are already starting to move to Georgia and other states. It's urgent that you talk to all your people and convince them that you have resources, state representatives, and other people that can explain the bill to you."

Anti-immigration legislation across the South

The anti-immigration measures in Florida's most recent bill echo similar legislation proposed and passed across the South in the past few decades. In 2012, Mother Jones found that 164 restrictive immigration laws were passed between 2010 and 2011, largely inspired by Arizona's severe 2010 law. Sixty-one of these laws were in the South. 

A Facing South analysis updating this data found 119 more such laws have been passed in the region between 2012 and 2021. 

Georgia's HB 87 is among the most restrictive laws enacted in the last 13 years. Passed in April 2011, Georgia's Illegal Immigration and Enforcement Act penalized individuals who knowingly harbored or transported undocumented immigrants, empowered law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being undocumented, and strengthened requirements for businesses to use E-Verify. 

At the time, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated around 425,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Georgia. And Georgia politicians defended the legislation using similar arguments recently made by Florida state representatives. "Our goal is, within a constitutional framework, to eliminate incentives for illegal aliens to cross into our state," state Rep. Matt Ramsey told the New York Times shortly after the Georgia bill's passage. 

Before the law took effect, a survey of 230 Georgia farmers by the Georgia Department of Agriculture estimated that over 11,000 additional workers would be needed to carry on for the season because so many documented and undocumented migrant families had fled the state due to the legislation. 

The law ultimately went into effect by the time summer harvests were ready to be picked, despite numerous protests and a federal judge blocking two of the law's heaviest provisions. As a result of a subsequent "epic farm labor shortage," the state saw millions of pounds of watermelon — as well as peaches, cucumbers, and blackberries — rotting across fields that summer, according to The Nation.

Government attempts to provide damage control over the $300 million lost in crops included a program proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal to replace migrant laborers with unemployed probationers. The pilot phase of the program resulted in insufficient and inexperienced crews abandoning the fields as a result of grueling work conditions, Politico reported in 2011

Eventually, less than a year after its enactment, a federal judge permanently blocked most of the harmful provisions of the Georgia law.

In June 2011, yet another harsh anti-immigrant bill, HB 56, was signed into law in Alabama. Provisions of the law prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, attending public colleges or universities in the state, and applying for jobs. Landlords were banned from renting property to undocumented immigrants, business owners were prohibited from hiring undocumented workers, and school officials were forced to determine and report students' immigration status. 

Similar to Florida's SB 1718, Alabama's HB 56 criminalized transporting undocumented immigrants and required employers to check the immigration status of workers through E-Verify. The National Immigration Law Center also found that HB 56 encouraged racial profiling during interactions with law enforcement, in a report released a year after the law's implementation.

Ana Delio Espino, executive director for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, spoke during FIRM's June 13 town hall meeting. She opened her segment by reflecting on Florida's legislation and reminded attendees that they "have been through this before."

She said that HB 56 was an effort to curb the budding Alabama community of immigrants. "Little did they know that we were new Alabamians and we were standing on the shoulders of civil rights giants," Espino said. 

With the support of faith leaders, community members, local and national organizations, and Spanish and Indigenous languages interpreters, Alabamian immigrants organized large-scale marches, vigils and caravans to protest the bill, Espino said. A rally to the Alabama capitol, a children's march to the governor's mansion and national immigration conferences drew crowds of thousands to voice their disapproval of HB 56. 

"Southerners — Alabamians — rose to the occasion," Espino said. "And in a place where they wanted to make it against the law to help your neighbor, our neighbors came and helped us."

A coalition of civil rights groups, including the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law, filed a federal class action lawsuit in 2011 to challenge the constitutionality of HB 56. By October 2013, most of the provisions of the law had been struck down. 

Efrén C. Olivares, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, noted that policies like these are the culmination of years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobic discourse in the South.

"HB 56 was one of the early iterations of the current wave of anti-immigrant laws and policies, but it was not the last," Olivares said.

Moving forward in Florida  

In Florida, advocates are continuing to take action to defend immigrant communities, such as encouraging U.S. citizens to decline medical inquiries into immigration status. Medical practitioners are likewise asked to commit to granting undocumented immigrants knowledge of their ability not to respond and providing the same level of care to these patients.

Other efforts include fundraisers to provide undocumented immigrants with community IDs and “Know Your Rights" campaigns to fight misinformation and fear surrounding SB 1718.

"We know all this that we're doing to protect our communities will not go far enough," Petit said. "The only thing that can work is if we organize our communities. It is if we organize folks to stand up and say 'We don't want this, this is not our Florida.'"  

Petit noted that the success and progression of the country's immigrant communities depends on the success of the organizing done in Southern states, such as Florida and Texas.

"If we're doing this, it's not just to protect Florida," Petit said. "We're doing this because the entire nation needs help. The entire nation needs to be protected because we know similar bills like this are going to just pop up in different states."

Most recently, legal advocates including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Americans for Immigrant Justice, American Immigration Council, and the ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit July 17 on behalf of the Florida Farmworkers Association and other impacted individuals. The case will mainly focus on Section 10, which pertains to the transportation of undocumented immigrants into Florida. 

"Florida has a proud history of welcoming immigrants," said Shalyn Fluharty, director of Americans for Immigrant Justice. "And our future prosperity depends on continuing down a path of welcome for all people living in the Sunshine State — regardless of their birthplace or immigration status."