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Exploring the impact of Florida’s new immigration law on the undocumented community and their loved ones.

Undocumented students face new challenges under Florida's immigration law

A map hangs in a Hope classroom.
Danielle Prieur
A map hangs in a Hope Community Center classroom.

Florida’s new immigration law has been in place for a month now. As part of our series Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide, WMFE’s Danielle Prieur takes a look at the impact on undocumented students.

A note: We have changed the name of one of our sources in this story to Michael to protect his identity, and have not used Alejandra’s last name for the same reasons.

From Nigeria to UCF: one student's journey

Michael is a 22-year-old junior at UCF, studying computer engineering. But he remembers clearly what it was like as a high schooler applying for college.

The College of Engineering on UCF's campus.
UCF College of Engineering
The College of Engineering on UCF's campus.

“Even though I was applying for colleges and stuff, I wasn't really sure, you know, could I actually get in? Like, would it be possible for me to actually commit to that?”

Michael's trepidation didn’t come from bad grades, but because he’s undocumented. He and his mom moved to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was three years old. His little sister was born here and is a U.S. citizen.

“It's been pretty hard because both my mom and I are undocumented but my sister was born here," said Michael. "It's been pretty hard. [My mom] had to work odd jobs to make ends meet.”

Michael says his mom found Hope Community Center when he was 17. Staff helped their family fill out college applications and applications for scholarships. But he still faces additional barriers because he doesn’t have his papers.

For example, Michael never asks to be paid for internships or lab work at UCF, as he says things would get too complicated too quickly.

And now with the new immigration laws, he says he and his mom are facing more challenges. He worries about putting others at risk, including the Uber or bus drivers who transport him to school and work every day.

It's a crime to knowingly transport undocumented people across state lines in Florida. An earlier version of the legislation would have criminalized the transportation of undocumented people within the state as well.

Michael also worries with the new E-Verify requirements if it will be harder for him to get a job after graduation.

That's why he's focused on getting work authorization for himself and his mom.

New immigration laws, new challenges

Seminole State College business student Salvador Rosas is a U.S. citizen, who comes from a mixed-status family.

He was born in the U.S. along with his two siblings, but his parents, who are from Mexico, are undocumented. He said he can relate to the added stressors the law has caused Michael and his family.

“Mentally, my mind has been all over the place realizing: how is my family going to, like go through this? How am I going to go through this?”

Rosas says he’s a lot more anxious these days. His mom is concerned she won't be able to travel to Chicago to see his grandparents. And he's witnessed heightened racial profiling.

Rosas said living with undocumented family members there's always the fear that they may be deported. He says when that does happen, the impact on children is detrimental.

According to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, Florida’s new immigration law could impact 40,000 college students who are undocumented here. The state graduates about 13,000 undocumented students from high school each year.

A University of Arizona study found a 2011 Arizona immigration law, called SB 1070, that allowed police to stop anyone to ask about their immigration status caused declines in school attendance and performance.

Several schools in Pima County reported losing funding which resulted in statewide teacher layoffs and other job cuts. The authors of the study, summed up the long-term consequences of the law in this way:

"Their communities have been frayed by the departure of family members and friends. Their educations have been undermined by, among other factors, decreased school enrollments and the distress left in the wake of those departures. Many young people and their families also maintain a powerful mistrust of the public institutions around them, especially police, but also often extending to schools."

Laws could cause drop in enrollment in Central Florida

Ivis Greenwall, who runs Hope’s after-work ESL programs for adult learners in the Apopka area, said class sizes have been smaller than usual this summer since the new law took effect.

“We actually know of three families from our ESL program that actually moved to a different state," said Greenwall. "And that's just the people that have answered the phone because we call back and say we miss you in class what happened? And then they tell us. We left.”

Greenwall runs classes from 6 until 8 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Students can learn English at three different levels. She says most come directly from work, no breaks, no dinner, just to learn the language and to make a better life for themselves and their families. And they don't tend to miss class.

She says the lower enrollment in her classes could be a fluke, it could be because it's summer break, or it could be because of the law.

Either way, Greenwall is encouraging people who can, to vote in the next election, to make their voices and opinions about this law heard. She says it's crucial that people let their elected officials know how they feel about the new law, and how it's impacting their families.

Central Florida school districts don’t track the immigration status of their students, so it’s hard to tell if enrollment numbers are down heading into the new school year.

Families are leaving Florida ahead of the fall term

Alejandra, a third-grade teacher at Orange County Schools, is herself a DREAMer.

She moved to North Carolina from Mexico with her mom and dad when she was a one-year-old. She recently graduated from Rollins Pathways to Teaching program, where she fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.

A map hangs in a classroom at Hope.
Danielle Prieur
A classroom agreement at Hope Community Center.

She used to work in Oak Ridge where the majority of her students and parents were immigrants. She said several of her students left the state at the end of last school year.

“I created those relationships with my students, just like all teachers do, where you just want to know that your student is doing well and want to come back to that school and go, hey, like, you know, how is Maria doing? I do worry about how they are doing in other schools because the place where I was at, the school where I was at, they had a sense of community," said Alejandra. "They felt very supported.”

With school starting this week, Alejandra is excited to teach English Language Arts or ELA. She's busy decorating her classroom, and preparing to welcome her kids like any first-time teacher.

But she also plans on doing something special: talking about her immigration status with her students, and their parents. She wants her families to know they have an ally in her, and someone to confide in as they navigate the new law together.

She says if she could share anything with her elementary school kids it would be this:

"To always believe in themselves, never allow anyone to shut down their dreams. Because if I would have allowed that I wouldn't be sitting here today," said Alejandra. "I wouldn't be a teacher. I wouldn't have come this far. A lot of doors got shut for me. And I think if I wouldn't have continued pursuing my dream, I wouldn't be here. No matter your status. I know that can intervene for a lot of like legal reasons, but we just have to fight for it. We have to resist and be brave."

Advocates and migrant workers have sued the DeSantis administration over the law calling the language purposefully vague and incoherent.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.
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