For many of the immigrants in Florida, daily life has changed radically in recent months and is now marked by fear.
Some try to drive only for essentials and go to the supermarket less often. Others no longer take their children to parks and are afraid to leave them at schools. There are those who even barely go out, avoid traveling to other states, going to the doctor, or even closing their businesses and moving. Many are on high alert after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new immigration law in May.
Considered one of the strictest in the entire country, the rule criminalizes the transportation of immigrants who lack permanent legal status, invalidates any type of identification they have and prevents local governments from providing them with identification cards. It also requires hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status and companies with more than 25 employees to verify whether their workers have legal authorization.
Certain aspects of the law are already in effect. Others begin to rule later.
DeSantis, who is in full campaign to become president of the country, signed the law in the hope of winning the vote of conservative voters and has criticized President Joe Biden’s government for allowing the massive arrival of migrants across the border with Mexico.
“You are going to see a massive wave of illegal aliens, you have a duty to ensure that these borders are secure,” DeSantis said when signing the law, a day before federal immigration regulations in force during the pandemic ended.
Since then, immigrants interviewed by the Associated Press have expressed that their daily routines have changed for fear of being detained, separated from their families and deported to their countries of origin.
A woman who asked not to be identified because of the risk of being detained said that the change in the law made her again feel a fear similar to the one that prompted her to leave her country.
“I imagined that we came to have a better life and be calmer and that hasn’t been the case,” he said. “There is always the fear that something could happen to us.”
The Honduran, a 31-year-old single mother, fled the violence in her country with her four daughters in 2021 in search of peace in the United States. She requested asylum and worked as a house painter to support her daughters and her mother, who arrived six years ago crossing the border illegally and has no legal status.
Before the new law was passed, her mother helped her by driving the girls to school. She now fears that the police will stop her and arrest her for driving without a driver’s license.
“Try not to go out too much and be careful,” he explained.
Due to the new law, the Honduran woman lost her job.
His employer, a Salvadoran who also has no immigration status, abruptly closed his small house painting services business and left Florida. She thought about leaving, but she didn’t have money to move. It took her more than a month to find another job and in the meantime she survived with the help of friends and family.
About 4.6 million foreigners live in Florida, the vast majority from Latin America and the Caribbean. At least 825,000 of them lack immigration status, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey in 2017.
About half of those people contribute significantly to the workforce and the state’s most important economic sectors, such as agriculture, construction, the hotel and restaurant industry, among others, according to the American Business Immigration Coalition, a network of businesses and companies that promote national immigration reform.
“(The law) is impacting their ability to go about their daily lives like they used to,” said Shalyn Fluharty, an immigration attorney and executive director of American for Immigrant Justice, a nonprofit that offers legal advice to people of scarce resources.
Experts like Fluharty describe the law as vague and confusing. They say it raises concerns about arrests and criminal charges for people who have no way of knowing that the law may affect them, including U.S. citizens who may be driving and bringing immigrants without legal immigration status into the state in their vehicles.
“Whether or not (a person) needs to be afraid really depends on their unique, individual situation,” Fluharty said. His advice: if you are afraid, consult a lawyer.
The reality, however, is that not everyone can contact a lawyer.
Many have simply changed the way they live, including families in which some members are U.S. citizens and others do not have permanent legal status.
Salvador Rosas, for example, was born in central Florida, like his two younger brothers. All three are United States citizens, but other members of their family do not have legal immigration status. Among them, his parents, who arrived from Mexico in 1999, and his grandmother.
Before the law was passed, the family used to drive once or twice a year to visit grandmother who lives in Chicago, about 1,000 miles to the north. Now, both Rosas’ parents and grandmother fear being detained and have canceled all travel plans.
“That’s already being very difficult,” said Rosas, a college business student.
His mother has lived for years separated from the family in Mexico and “now it’s like it’s going to be a separation between states” within the United States, he said.
And although Rosas is a US citizen, he also fears being detained if he travels with his parents and returns to Florida.
Rosas’ fear is not unfounded: authorities are already enforcing the new law.
A Mexican who arrived in Florida a year ago was arrested in August when he returned from working in the neighboring state of Georgia. The Mexican consul in Orlando, Juan Sabines, told the AP that police stopped the white van he was driving because its window glass was apparently darker than allowed by law.
The man was arrested and charged with failure to drive with a valid license and multiple counts of smuggling “illegal persons,” according to a Florida Highway Patrol report and court documents.
The police report indicated that six other people were traveling in the vehicle, including a child, but only the driver was detained.
The arrest echoes the experience of another immigrant who spoke to the AP.
A 45-year-old Mexican man who asked not to be identified for fear of deportation said a routine traffic stop in 2011 ended with him being detained and later repatriated for driving without a driver’s license.
His wife was pregnant, and although he returned five months later to join his family in South Florida, he was not present for the birth of their second American child.
After the law was passed, he moved with his wife and three children about 2,400 kilometers northwest, to the state of Wisconsin. And he’s glad to be gone.
“I am calm, I am calm, more confident” in Wisconsin, far from Florida, where he was “distressed, pressured and afraid of any police.”
“I’m not going to leave my family alone,” he said. “I already went through it once.”