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

Introducing Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide, a series exploring immigration

central florida seen and heard: immigration divide
Ryan Ellison/WMFE

Next week, WMFE News will begin airing a series called Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide.

The series will explore the impacts of the state’s new immigration law SB 1718 which went into effect at the beginning of July.

The law has stepped up requirements on businesses to verify the immigration status of employees using a system called E-Verify. It has made it illegal to transport undocumented people across state lines, and requires hospitals to ask about a person’s immigration status.

Florida has also stopped accepting out-of-state driver's licenses for undocumented people while prohibiting local municipalities from issuing their own ID's.

Why take on the topic?

WMFE decided to explore the topic of immigration for its first newsroom-wide multimedia series because of the sweeping reach of the legislation.

The law could affect everyone in some way. Undocumented people will be reminded of the law, whenever they go to the doctor's office, apply for a job, or get in the car to drive to work.

U.S. residents who are in mixed-status families, made up of residents and non-residents, will have to think twice before they transport family members without papers across state lines.

And residents who don't know anyone who is undocumented could still feel the cost of this law at the checkout counter.

Our reporting has shown that some undocumented people are leaving Florida because of the new law.

One of the industries in Central Florida that heavily employs migrant and undocumented workers is farming. If farmers don’t have the workers or pay more for people to do the needed jobs, those costs aren't just shouldered by the farms, but by consumers.

The same applies for industries like construction, hospitality, and manufacturing.

Let's do the numbers

According to a 2021 U.S. Census survey, 16 percent of the people in the Orlando metro area, that's Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties, are foreign-born. Click here to check out the updated 2022 numbers by county.

That includes the whole range of immigrant statuses, from naturalized U.S. citizens to undocumented residents.

That's less than 21 percent in Florida as a whole but more than nearly 14 percent nationwide.

About 70 percent of Orlando-area immigrants are from Latin America. Fifteen percent are from Asia. Then come Europe, Africa and the rest of North America including Canada.

How does Central Florida stack up?

The biggest numbers in Orlando come from Venezuela with more than 8 percent of the foreign-born population, followed by Mexico, Haiti and Colombia.

In the Melbourne metro, Jamaica leads with nearly 12 percent. Up the coast in the area that covers Volusia and Flagler counties, Mexico is number one.

But in those areas, immigrants are a smaller share of the overall population, and Latin American immigrants are about half the foreign-born population.

Other data, from 2019, show that 6 percent of the children in Florida are foreign-born. And a third of Florida's children live in immigrant families.

Our reporting shows that the local immigrant population is not only diverse, but makes up a large part of who our neighbors, doctors, teachers, religious leaders, and partners are in the Central Florida community.

Why do supporters say this law is necessary?

Gov. Ron DeSantis says Florida’s immigration law is needed because of what he’s calling "Biden’s Border Crisis" at the Southern Border.

A Pew Research Center study published in June, found thatjust 23 percent of Americans say the government is doing a good jobhandling immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearly half of Americans, about 47 percent, rate illegal immigration as a "very big problem" in the country. Half again, say it is very important to require people seeking asylum in the U.S. to apply for that status before they travel to the border.

The survey also highlights that Republicans tend to think immigration should be a higher priority of national concern over Democrats and Independents.

John Quinones who is a Republican, lives and works in Kissimmee as a lawyer. He's originally from Puerto Rico and supports Florida's immigration laws.

“Obviously we come here legally, but at the same time, we're Hispanics," said Quinones. "And we want to see a process that allows for legal immigration. And that is streamlined so that people that can do certain work, can come here legally.” 

Quinones made it clear that he's not against immigration, and he's not for closed borders. But he is against unchecked immigration into the U.S.

He’d like to see comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level that would put restrictions in place, but until he sees that happen he says laws like SB 1718 are needed.

“We need a secure border and remember, you know, people that come from Puerto Rico, they also come from a border island, that has seen its fair share of illegal immigration, that has strained their economy as well," said Quinones.

He says at least the new law puts a system of checks and balances in place like E-Verify for businesses.

Central Florida responds to the new laws

Even before the law went into effect, some Republicans who supported the law began to plead with people not to leave the state. They say the law was meant to scare people from coming to the state of Florida, but not to force people to leave.

Our reporting has shown that although most undocumented residents are staying, some families have already left the state out of fear of being separated.

Salvador Rosas, is a first-generation U.S. citizen from a mixed-status family. He's also a business student at Seminole State College. He’s heard about families leaving the state because of the law.

“But I know there have been a lot of people in our community who have been reaching out asking, what's the best decision for them to do," said Rosas. "I've been having friends and family who have you know, thought about moving before the law even passing the first of July."

But he says ultimately the resilience of the undocumented community has won out. 

For example, when he spoke about the new law with his parents, they said this: 

“We're not afraid, we don't plan on moving," said Rosas. "Yes, it'd be hard for us to see our relatives around in the U.S. but we're not afraid because we've been fighting it for the past 22 years ever since they arrived here in the US.”

Rosas, who works at Hope Community Center with school-aged kids says lots of kids want to learn more about the political process because of the law. Some have joined protests with their families, while others who can't attend help make protest signs.

During our reporting we noticed folks were staying off the roads, unless they absolutely have to drive, because of new restrictions on licenses and ID's for undocumented people, but otherwise they're staying. 

What can we expect from this series?

We already know that some undocumented people have a fear of seeking medical help.

As we mentioned earlier, this change in the law requires hospitals to ask about immigration status. We’re going to explore what this change could mean. We’ll be looking at the possible impact on school systems. We’re exploring some of the cultural influence immigrants have had here in Orlando and we’ll be hearing from a multigenerational mixed-status family about their concerns and how they are navigating.

People really are at the heart of this series.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.
LaToya Dennis is news director & managing editor at Central Florida Public Media. She has been at the forefront of rethinking what news is and how to best deliver it to communities not traditionally well served by public radio. She holds both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Journalism from Michigan State University.
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