The City of Homestead is a fundamental part of South Florida, and the work that comes out of this area feeds communities. The streets of the city are lined with endless agricultural landscapes. Workers mostly from Central America and Mexico are made small by the large fields that surround them as they work long hours under the sun.
An undocumented farmworker from Mexico who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions has worked in the fields for about 15 years. She has been at a Homestead nursery for seven years and takes leadership as one of the oldest and most experienced employees among the women at the nursery.
“The work in any area as long as it is in the field is tough, not only the nurseries, but also gardening, construction and all of that,” she said in Spanish.
She crossed the U.S.-Mexico border 20 years ago following the death of her father. She made her way straight to Florida and was welcomed by family members who had already made a home for themselves in America. She has been a taxpayer for years and because of her status receives nothing in return. She hopes for immigration reforms in the state to give her and other undocumented immigrants an easier pathway to citizenship.
“Nothing ever comes back to us when we pay taxes. In a way a [reform] would help a lot,” she said.
She says she’s seen a lot of undocumented workers leave out of fear since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the strictest immigration law in the state in May. The bill makes E-Verify mandatory for employers with 25 or more employees. E-Verify is a federal system created to check I-9 information and make sure new employees are eligible to work in the United States. The form asks employees to provide an authorized document like a passport, permanent resident card, driver’s license or social security card as proof of eligibility.
“The reason this is scary for a lot of employers and immigrants is that when you run someone’s credentials through E-verify, it will almost immediately spit out a response,” said Deidre Nero, an immigration lawyer.
Nero says this part of the law has always been regulated but with less enforcement. Employers had time to send in the I-9 documents before and if they weren’t audited they kept their employees even if they didn’t have the proper documentation. This gave people an opportunity to sneak past the legal system and provide for their families.
Employers had until July 1st to have this system in place or risk the future of their business. If the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity determines an employer has failed to comply, the employer will be given 30 days to adjust to the law requirements.
Businesses may face a fine of $1,000 per day if three violations occur in 24 months and can also get their licenses suspended. A nursery owner in Homestead who asked to remain anonymous says he has seen a lot of people leave and has to do much of the work himself.
“There are many nurseries whose growth deficit have gone down for lack of labor of people and it’s difficult to be able to get someone to work because there is no one. Even with the other landscaping business I own I have to do it because there are no people,” he said in Spanish.
Oscar, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, came to the United States by train through Mexico. He had no choice but to endure cold nights as they crossed the border to their new home.
“We had to come here because of necessity. We have a lot of scarcity in Guatemala for work, there are many who do not have a job there,” Oscar said.
The law is hurting some of the biggest industries that bring money into the state. According to KFF, formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, 37% work in the agriculture sector, followed by 23% in construction and 14% in service and transportation in 2021.
Pedro, a construction worker, crossed the border 30 years ago and learned about the law through WeCount! The non-profit organization fights for labor justice for migrant workers. Pedro says many co-workers have left Florida looking for states they believe to be more friendly.
“We are always waiting for someone else to do the work for us, but we are the ones that need to do the work individually,” Pedro said.
The Florida Policy Institute estimates that without undocumented workers, the state’s top industries could lose 10% of their workforce. The loss of these earned wages could lead to a drop of $12.6 billion in Florida’s GDP in just one year. Fewer workers in these sectors would mean state and local tax revenue would drop.
“If the majority of construction and agriculture workers united, we would be able to twist the government’s arm and sit down to have a dialogue,” Pedro said.
On May 27, the organization marched in Homestead with about 5,000 people fighting for change. They rallied for reform against SB 1718 and the working conditions. The organization says people are not getting proper pay, water breaks and work under hot temperatures.
“It is important for us to make it a mission to inform migrant workers about the rights they are given even if they are undocumented. With our QueCalor! Campaign we have been protesting and organizing to obtain more protections for farm workers on the fields,” Erick Sanchez, WeCount! director said.
Undocumented immigrants flee from their countries in search of the American dream. They come for stability and safety for themselves and their families but are met with harsh working conditions and concerns about the repercussions of SB 1718. Reform is what they desire to reach for the dream they have traveled so far to obtain.
Correction: This article had been labeled under the wrong series of stories about immigration.