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Post-Hurricane Idalia, DeSantis immigration law keeps some workers away

CRYSTAL RIVER — Rogelio Rauda stood in the parking lot of a waterfront motel, warning a fellow construction laborer on the other end of the phone not to go to Perry. He’d heard the Florida city, farther north and closer to Hurricane Idalia’s landfall, had a heavy police presence and was less safe for immigrants who don’t have legal status.

Rauda had spent the morning dumping mold-freckled drywall from the storm-damaged motel into a dumpster, scooping up the smaller pieces in his bare hands like graham cracker crumbs. He and his crew came to Crystal River in Citrus County as part of a national workforce that follows natural disasters like seasonal crops. They provide labor during the grueling months after hundreds or thousands of properties are damaged or destroyed.

Many of these migrants, including Rauda, flocked to Southwest Florida less than a year ago after Hurricane Ian to help homeowners rebuild. But this year is different. This time, many are too afraid to enter the state because of a new immigration law that took effect in July — part of a slate of measures pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis shortly before he announced his presidential campaign.

Already, there have been news reports of the law causing labor shortages in the state’s restaurant, hotel and agricultural industries. Hurricane Idalia will be the first test of whether the labor shortages brought on by that new law will also hamper rebuilding efforts in Florida, just as the state enters peak hurricane season.

Rauda said all the precautions they’ve had to take because of the Florida law exact a mental toll.

“People are scared,” he said. “You walk on eggshells.”

A national nonprofit group called Resilience Force, which advocates for post-disaster laborers without legal status, informally polled its roughly 2,000 members about whether Florida’s new immigration law would prevent them from traveling to the state.

“Well over half” said yes, said Saket Soni, the group’s executive director. Many were people who worked in Florida after past hurricanes like Michael in 2018 and Ian.

“I’ve never heard so many workers so unanimously afraid. These are people who have been deploying to rebuild homes after hurricanes since Katrina,” Soni said, referring to the 2005 Category 5 storm that devastated Louisiana.

Florida Senate Bill 1718 made it a third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport a person without legal status into the state. It required private businesses with at least 25 employees to use E-Verify, the online federal system that checks the immigration status of workers. It also mandated that hospitals that accept Medicaid ask about patients’ immigration status on intake forms, and invalidated driver’s licenses issued by other states to people unable to prove lawful residency in the country.

Soni said DeSantis’ policies would ultimately hurt homeowners, and the impact of a labor shortage will only worsen if another storm hits a more populous area than Idalia’s landfall in rural Big Bend.

“This is a governor who’s grabbing headlines for a presidential run. That’s ultimately more important to him right now than his own constituents, homeowners who desperately need workers to rebuild their homes,” he said. “That’s a practical problem, not a political one.”

The governor’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. When DeSantis has spoken about immigration policy on the campaign trail, he’s emphasized the dangers that he said are posed by people coming to the country illegally, citing drug trafficking. His campaign rolled out a hardline immigration plan that proposed to do away with birthright citizenship for people born in the U.S. to parents without legal status, and DeSantis has said suspected cartel members should be shot “stone cold dead.”

Rauda has been working in disaster recovery since arriving in the U.S. from Honduras 22 years ago, and decided to risk coming to Florida because of the job opportunities to make money quickly. Rauda said he sends the money he makes back to his family in Texas. He estimates he needs to make about $3,500 a month to feed his family and cover their bills.

“We want to work, yes, but it’s not easy. And, at the same time, subcontractors are also afraid of hiring us because of the law,” he said.

Last year in Fort Myers, it was common to see migrant construction workers eagerly waiting for work all over town: at gas stations, on corners, outside Home Depot stores. In Crystal River last week, there were few signs of their presence. Debris piles lay baking in front yards next to manatee-shaped mailboxes that invoked the town’s famous tourist attraction.

After police told his crew they could no longer sleep in their cars in a shopping plaza, Rauda said, four of them crammed into one room at a cheap motel for $70 a night. They advertise their services by holding a handmade sign: “Demolition, Cleaning, Drywall” — but were asked to move to a different street corner by a nearby store manager.

Maria Oyuela is one of the workers who is staying away.

For four months after Hurricane Ian, she and her husband slept in their car in a Fort Myers Home Depot parking lot, having left their son with family in another state so he could keep going to school, she said. They installed sheetrock, made repairs and painted homes.

But the temperature of the immigration debate in Florida was already rising. Oyuela said local police repeatedly asked her about her papers or threatened to deport her. This year, with the new law in place, she said they decided it was too dangerous.

“It hurts a lot to not be able and go help people and find work,” Oyuela, who is also from Honduras, said in a phone interview from Louisiana. “I feel frustrated, but I can’t go.”

Two other migrant workers interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, who declined to provide their full names because of their immigration status, said they made the same choice. Even as rebuilding work slows to a crawl in other hurricane-struck states along the Gulf, it wasn’t worth the risk of deportation, they said, which could leave their families without breadwinners.

All three migrants said they hadn’t ever opted to stay out of any state until now.

Contractors interviewed by the Times had differing views of what the labor shortage will mean, though not whether there will be one. They said the construction industry has already been grappling with a labor shortage that was years in the making.

Daniel Osborne, owner of DRR Drywall Repair in Ocala, said the immigration law would help ensure homeowners hire licensed tradesmen like him to rebuild their homes. Workers not held to those same standards, like those in the country illegally, run the risk of mishandling repairs that could lead to dangerous mold problems, he said.

“If individuals are being forced to explore and secure local, legal, licensed professionals, that’s going to help their local, legal, licensed community,” Osborne said.

Brent Taylor, a general contractor who’s president of Taylor Construction Group in Tampa, said the smaller supply of labor will lead to longer timelines and higher costs for homeowners affected by Idalia to make repairs. He said the construction industry needs workers even if they don’t have legal status because younger Americans have stayed away from trades after generations were encouraged instead to seek out white-collar careers.

“I believe that we have a crisis when it comes to (immigration). But I also believe that there is maybe other ways to resolve the problem, rather than just, ‘You can’t work,’” said Taylor, who is also president of an organization called Tradesmen for Triumph, which helps hurricane-affected homeowners find licensed tradesmen and contractors. “Whether it was after Ian or not, our industry is very heavily dependent on what we’re calling migrant workers.”

At the Crystal River motel, Rauda was back to demolition — ripping out the bottom half of each room’s mint green-painted drywall, prying nails off with a crowbar, to get down to the studs. Dust filled the musty-smelling air. In parts of the walls they hadn’t yet torn down, mold had already started growing so thickly that it was fuzzy like cotton.

Following two rooms behind was Rogelio’s nephew, Junior Moises George Rauda, who was caulking baseboards to the new sections of drywall. For their work, the group of migrants will be paid $1,000 per room to split, though sometimes a chunk of their profit has to be used for building materials.

Taped to the glass on the small motel’s front office was a notice from an inspector on bright red paper, with a handwritten note that said water had rushed into the building, possibly damaging the electrical system.

At the top, an all-caps heading read: “UNSAFE.”

Times staff photojournalist Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.


Harris rallies for Biden’s abortion rights and immigration priorities at Hispanic conference

WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris and Latino members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet came out in force Wednesday to rally Latinos behind the administration’s fight for abortion rights, health care access and more legal immigration pathways.

At the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute conference, Harris spoke to a largely supportive, packed crowd and said that the president “has been clear that when Congress puts back Roe v. Wade, he will sign that legislation … That’s why elections matter,” she added.

CHCI is an arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, composed of Latino Democrats.

Harris said the notion of some states refusing to propose exceptions to abortion, even in case of rape or incest, “is immoral.”

“One does not have to abandon their faith to agree that the government should not be telling a woman what to do with her body,” she said.

Harris slammed efforts to undo the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation by former President Donald Trump and some Republican states, describing them as “unapologetic attempts to undo progress.”

Image: Vice President Kamala Harris and actor John Leguizamo participate in a conversation during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Leadership Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sept. 20, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images)

Hours earlier, at the same conference, Biden’s four Latino Cabinet members sat together on a panel for the first time.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the first Latino to head the Health and Human Services Department, said more Americans than ever, specifically Latinos and Blacks, have health insurance.

Becerra said HHS is doing everything it can to make sure women continue to have access to health care, including emergency services.

He gave the example of his agency intervening in cases in Missouri and Kansas, where pregnant women were denied emergency services because of abortion prohibitions and restrictions. Becerra said denying anyone emergency services is a violation of federal law.

He added that a woman who lives in a state with no access to abortion is two to three more times likely to die giving birth.

Becerra trumpeted the administration’s work closing the Covid vaccination gap that it inherited when Biden took office, by providing more than 700 million shots during the pandemic.

“We made sure to erase that disparity,” he said, by going into communities to vaccinate people.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that under Biden’s school debt relief plan, the debt of 1 in 2 Latinos would have been forgiven, but the Supreme Court struck down the plan.

Cardona said the administration is working on other ways to help debt-laden students, including a new income-driven repayment plan and a crackdown on schools that prey on first-generation students with unkept promises of certain professional certificates, leaving them in heavy debt instead.

“We are also trying to address a racial wealth gap,” Cardona said.

Biden is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2024 and even though he won the Latino vote in 2020, Trump and other Republicans made key gains among Hispanics, particularly in Florida as well as in Texas.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute conference on Sept. 20, 2023. (Nicole Acevado / NBC News)

Several polls over the past month have shown Trump doing “historically well” among Latino and Black voters, The Washington Post reported, although the voter samples were small.

Immigration already is taking center stage in the upcoming election, with new increases of illegal crossings at the southern border.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who has been an impeachment target of Republicans, praised Biden’s immigration approach, which has also come under heavy criticism from immigration advocates and progressives.

When asked about the recent surge of migrants, he touted the Biden administration’s focus on building “lawful pathways” for migrants/immigrants to remain in the country. “We are incredibly proud to be a nation of immigrants,” he said.

Mayorkas drew a line between the Biden administration’s policies and Trump’s use of family separation to deter migration, when asked about reports of children being temporarily separated by Border Patrol because of overcrowding.

“We ended the cruel policy of family separations” from the Trump administration, he said, adding that more than 700 of those families separated under Trump have been reunited.

But a high-ranking Latino Democratic senator pressed Biden to go further in opening legal pathways.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called on Biden to “urgently and aggressively” use executive action to address immigration, since Congress is very unlikely to do so.

“Unfortunately, any meaningful immigration reform is not going to come from Congress anytime soon,” Menendez said in a media call.

Among some proposals for executive action that Menendez has previously floated, and raised again in the call, are issuing new visas to address labor shortages, expanding access to the H2A temporary agricultural worker visas in Latin America and the Carribean, and redesignating Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status and issuing it for Guatemala.

Later on Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it was extending Temporary Protected Status to all Venezuelans who have lived in the U.S. since July of this year, which would allow hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to work and live in the U.S. without risk of deportation. A source told NBC News the decision came after pressure from New York City leaders, including Democratic Mayor Eric Adams. The TPS designation will enable many of the Venezuelan migrants who have recently arrived in New York City to work and not have to solely depend on the city’s shelter system.

Menendez said Biden shouldn’t shy from taking these actions amid the escalating criticism from Republicans and sensational images of people riding atop freight trains from Mexico to get to the U.S.

Isabella Casillas Guzman, ALejandro Mayorkas, Xavier Becerra. (AP/Getty Images)

“Creating new links, creating new pathways reduces pressure on the southwest border. It reduces the scenes that we see every day. It reduces the reality of going from 3,500 to 8,000 and it solves the economic questions that Republican governors across the country are calling for … they are actually saying, why can’t we offer people who want to do a job here in our state,” Menendez said.

“Running away from this doesn’t make this any better,” he added.

Matt Barreto, president and co-founder of BSP Research, said polling of Latinos by his firm and by Immigration Hub, an immigration reform advocacy group, found broad Latino support for a balanced approach to immigration “that includes humane and orderly border security.”

“When you couple border security actions — that is, adding more agents to monitor and process immigrants — and also taking action to support the immigrants already living here — we’re talking about longtime immigrants who have been working in the United States for decades that people are connected to — that gives you the biggest boost in enthusiasm,” he said.

Addressing Latino attendees on the topic of business and the economy, Small Business Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman said the Biden administration has been addressing barriers to help Latino businesses, which she said are started at higher rates than the general population and contribute $800 billion to the U.S. economy.

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Guide: Presidential candidates’ stances on immigration, border security

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As presidential campaigns ramp up, immigration is expected to be a key topic during the 2024 election season. Below is a quick overview of each candidate’s positions and plans for immigration and border security.

President Joe Biden (D)As President, Biden promised to reverse many of the executive orders former President Trump enacted on immigration, but a record number of migrants crossing the southern border derailed some of those plans.

Biden ended the Trump-era policy of family separation, as well as Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed border agents to turn away migrants because of the public health emergency.

But he also implemented a new enforcement plan that made it easier to deport asylum seekers who enter the U.S. illegally or fail to seek asylum in another country they pass through on their way to the U.S.

That policy initially led to a drop in border arrests this June, but the number increased again in July. That policy is currently on pause as it faces legal challenges.


Former President Donald Trump (R)As president, Trump implemented a policy of separating migrant families at the southern border and partially built a border wall.

If re-elected, he has said he wants to reinstate policies from his first term and implement new policies, including sending the Coast Guard and Navy to stop drug smuggling boats from Latin America, ending birthright citizenship, and increasing ideological screening of immigration and visa applicants.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)In May, DeSantis signed a sweeping immigration law in Florida that provided funding for his migrant relocation program, which required more businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to determine if employees can legally work in the U.S., prohibited local governments from providing money to organizations that issue I.D. cards to immigrants without legal permanent status and invalidated out-of-state driver’s licenses held by undocumented immigrants.

If elected, DeSantis said he would seek to end birthright citizenship and authorize law enforcement to use deadly force against migrants believed to be involved in illegal drug trafficking.


South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R)As a senator, Scott has introduced legislation to withhold funding from sanctuary cities and re-direct IRS funding to border security instead.

He has supported the idea of building a border wall to address illegal migration and drug smuggling.


Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (R)Ramaswamy, the son of Indian immigrants, has proposed some of the strictest immigration policies of any GOP candidate.

He said he would deport American-born children of undocumented immigrants, despite birthright citizenship being guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Additionally, he said he wants to implement an entirely meritocratic system of immigration, eliminating any lottery-based paths to citizenship.


Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, has vowed to defund sanctuary cities, add 25,000 new border agents and reimplement the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy.


Former Vice President Mike Pence (R)Pence has called for a return to Trump-era immigration policies, including finishing the border wall and reinstating the Remain in Mexico policy.

However, Pence said he would not revive the Trump administration’s family separation policy.


Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)Christie has proposed sending the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal crossings and intercept fentanyl.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, he said he did not support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.


Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R)Hutchinson has advocated for a state-based visa system, allowing each state to design its own immigration policies.

He has also called for adding more border patrol agents and charging fentanyl dealers with murder if their supply leads to a death.


North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R)Burgum has said he would support changes to the U.S. immigration system that would allow more “skilled” immigrants to enter the country legally.

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