Serving Florida’s Immigrants in the wake of SB 1718
In the weeks leading up to July 1—when Florida’s notorious SB 1718 went into effect—staff members of Florida Justice for Our Neighbors (soon-to-be Florida Immigrant Law & Justice Center) were busy fielding calls from worried clients, holding know-your-rights sessions at community centers, and speaking about the ramifications of the new law at events throughout Central and South Florida.
For immigrant families, the uncertainty and fear of separation led many to prepare for the worst.
“I’ve had an influx of calls requesting drafting of guardianship papers and POAs (Power of Attorney) for their property and healthcare directives for their children,” says Executive Director Nicole León.
At nearly the 30-day mark, Nicole stays connected with other immigration attorneys as they continually monitor the impact of the new law and those affected by its enforcement. Starting in June and coordinated by CLINIC, they hold bi-weekly meetings attended by leaders of other non-profit organizations serving immigrants throughout the state of Florida.
The Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit organization focused on economic mobility, estimates the state is home to about 400,000 undocumented workers, primarily working in the labor-intensive construction, farming, and hospitality industries. There are reports of employers scrambling to find workers as many immigrants leave the state for safer pastures.
SB 1718 puts thousands of people—citizens and noncitizens alike—at risk of being arrested, charged, and prosecuted with a felony for transporting immigrants—even family members—into Florida. It invalidates the use of several out-of-state driver’s licenses for migrants and compels hospitals receiving state funding to inquire about patients’ immigration status.
The American Immigration Council, the ACLU, and other organizations are currently challenging Florida’s unconstitutional and anti-immigrant laws in court.
A Tragedy in Mississippi reverberates in Nebraska
His name was Duvan Tomas Perez. He was a middle school student, a child, and an immigrant from Guatemala. He came to the USA for a future and was instead exploited and killed in a horrific accident at a Mississippi poultry processing plant.
When the news broke of his death, we immediately thought of Immigrant Legal Center—our affiliate in Nebraska—and their efforts to help immigrant child workers at a meat processing plant in Grand Isle, Nebraska, from 2022 through early 2023.
“This story is heartbreaking and infuriating,” says Legal Director Anna Deal.
“Although the Dept of Labor (DOL) has pledged to crack down on companies that violate child labor laws, immigrant children continue to work in dangerous, exploitative conditions, and the news cycle has largely moved on.”
The DOL depended upon Immigrant Legal Center and other area service providers for assistance, yet never shared the identities of most of the impacted children. There was no way to connect these children with public benefits or legal representation, and no way to help provide for their future.
“They retreated into the shadows,” says Anna, “and are now most likely working in other meatpacking plants or different industries.”
The Mississippi plant where Duvan was killed has a deplorable safety record. His is the third employee death since 2020.
The company was fined just $27,306 for the gruesome death of a worker in 2021. It’s an obscenely paltry sum for a human being’s life. Yet, company officials are still contesting the fine and stonewalling OSHA investigations.
In the Nebraska case, Anna informs us, the fines were also too insignificant to have a meaningful effect.
“As laid out in national reporting earlier this year, there are some very powerful interests that benefit from this recent increase in migrant child labor,” she says.
“Unfortunately, I think we can expect it to continue.”
All Eyes on Texas
Small children and mothers with nursing babies are pushed back into the river, migrant families are denied water and medical attention, and a 4- year-old is turned away to later pass out on the riverbank from the intense heat.
Several asylum seekers endure grievous injuries—including a woman who suffered a miscarriage while entangled in the wire.
The human distress and misery would move the most hard-hearted among us, but Governor Abbott appears unperturbed and continues his relentless agenda against migrants for political points.
Most recently, the governor ordered the installation of a “water barrier” as a further deterrence to families seeking refuge in the United States. Seen from above, the bright orange buoys resemble a thousand-foot snake winding slowly in the middle of the river.
The buoys are the size of wrecking balls, with mesh underneath to block swimmers attempting to dive under them. Immigration advocates and others have expressed concerns that this could lead to more drowning deaths among migrant families.
The Rio Grande is an international waterway, and a treaty between the United States and Mexico regulates construction, among other issues. Whether from arrogance or incompetence, Texas State officials did not obtain the necessary permits to place the barriers in the river.
Mexico has already filed a complaint, citing humanitarian and environmental concerns, and a possible disruption in the flow of water.
The Department of Justice is taking further action and following up on their previous threats to sue. They have asked a federal judge in Austin to force the state to remove the buoys.
Sid Earnheart, executive director of Justice for Our Neighbors North Central Texas—our ILJ affiliate serving the Dallas-Fort Worth region—has worked with several humanitarian organizations helping asylum seekers at the Texas border over the years. He offers this perspective:
“Asylum seekers are the most vulnerable and marginalized persons we serve because they have already suffered unimaginable atrocities in their country of origin. At the moment, both parties in power seem determined to exacerbate the suffering of asylum seekers through “deterrence,” whether that is through lethal razor wire and obstructions in the river and/or through policies that cause inhumane treatment of asylum seekers resulting in tent camps in border towns in Mexico.
“Until the actions of our government officials, and the voters that put them in power, reflect that migrant families were created in the image of God, and their actions reflect the sanctity of human life, migrant families will continue to suffer unnecessarily.”
We could not agree more.