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Why Florida's new immigration law is troubling businesses and workers alike

Pressure is growing for a boycott of Florida, including Latino truck drivers who vow to stop deliveries across the state and calls for an immigrant labor strike on June 1. Businesses are pledging to shutter their doors for the day to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis' sweeping new immigration law.

For years, the Republican presidential hopeful has railed relentlessly against U.S. immigration policies and newly arrived asylum seekers. Senate Bill 1718, which takes effect on July 1, will offer a preview of the controversial changes DeSantis has said he'd like to see Congress implement.

Among its provisions, the strict new state legislation limits social services for undocumented immigrants, allocates millions more tax dollars to expand DeSantis' migrant relocation program, invalidates driver's licenses issued to undocumented people by other states, and requires hospitals that get Medicaid dollars to ask for a patient's immigration status.

But the most worrisome measures – for businesses and undocumented immigrants alike – are the host of penalties for those who violate new employment mandates.

Supporters say it will help expel the recent influx of immigrants, stave off future arrivals, and provide more job opportunities to citizens and others in the country lawfully. Critics say it will cost the state billions in lost revenue, while many of the harshest penalties are unlikely to be enforced.

Here's a look at key provisions of the law and how they may impact the state's economy.

E-Verify requirements

What the law says:

To crack down on businesses hiring undocumented workers, SB 1718 will require private employers with 25 or more employees that are making new hires to use E-Verify, the federal online database that employers use to confirm whether someone is eligible to work in the U.S.

What the potential impacts are:

Business advocates across the state are concerned.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago, Florida director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group for immigration reform that benefits businesses, told NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday that the change will likely have a significant impact on Florida's agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors.

"These are industries where immigrants make up the vast majority of workers, and not allowing businesses to be able to utilize these workers will have a really big impact on our economy and their ability to create jobs," Vilchez said.

That's a big problem for Florida, where there's already a widespread labor shortage and the unemployment rate is low — just 2.6% in April.

The Florida Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research group, estimates that without undocumented workers, the state's most labor-intensive industries would "lose 10 percent of their workforce and the wages they contribute along with them." That could lead to a drop of $12.6 billion in Florida's GDP in a single year – about 1.1% – which would, in turn, cut workers' spending power and reduce state and local tax revenue.

There's been a wave of videos on social media showing images of vacant construction sites and fruit and vegetable fields where harvests remain unpicked and are rotting. According to the videos' narrators, the job sites have been abandoned by people who fear the new bill's E-Verify requirements.

While it's difficult to corroborate the videos, immigrant rights advocates say they've been overwhelmed by people asking if they should continue to show up for work.

"We have heard from a lot of families who have a lot of questions," Evelyn Wiese, a litigation attorney for Americans for Immigrant Justice, told NPR. "The problem with these kinds of laws is that they attack folks in so many different ways. And because they're often very unclear when they first come out, they really do inspire huge levels of fear."

Enforcing the hiring rule

What the law says:

Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity will be responsible for enforcing the E-Verify requirement, and DeSantis has touted new, harsh penalties for employers who violate it.

A graphic on the governor's website states that employers who fail to use E-Verify will be fined $1,000 a day. For workers, it will be a felony to use a false ID to get a job.

What the potential impacts are:

But a closer look at the legislation clarifies that these penalties apply only after an employer fails to use the database three or more times within two years. In those instances, the DEO can also suspend applicable business licenses until the employer provides proof of compliance.

As well, the agency "does not have a robust enforcement section," according to the Florida Policy Institute, and creating new positions to oversee the provisions would result in significant costs.

The CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, found that other states, including Arkansas and Arizona, which have passed similar E-Verify mandates are "widely ignoring the mandate."

In Arizona, two-time offenders of the law faced the permanent revocation of the employer's license at the location in question, essentially, shutting it down for good. But as of 2015 — seven years after E-Verify became mandatory in 2008 — prosecutors had only charged three businesses, according to the study.

The study also found that the E-Verify requirement doesn't achieve what lawmakers set out to do: It doesn't significantly decrease the employment of unauthorized workers nor deter unlawful immigration. One reason is that people who are undocumented often work under the table to avoid a paper trail altogether. Another is that E-Verify doesn't match against death records, so some people are able to dupe the system by using Social Security numbers belonging to deceased people.

Redefining human smuggling

What the law says:

Under the new law, a person who transports into Florida someone they know (or should have known) is an immigrant who has not been "inspected" by authorities could be charged with a felony for human smuggling.

A person who is found transporting fewer than five immigrants on their first offense could be charged with a third-degree felony. They can be sentenced up to five years in prison per person or pay a fine of $5,000 per count, with penalties increasing dramatically for a subsequent offense or for transporting more people or children.

What the potential impacts are:

This provision was among the most hotly contested and will likely face strong legal challenges because it's so poorly written, attorney Evelyn Wiese told NPR.

"As someone who has practiced immigration law for many years, I'm not exactly sure what the law means by 'inspected,'" she said.

Wiese noted that the Republican lawmakers failed to define the term in the Florida bill and that it deviates from federal immigration laws. Without clarification, she said, legislators have created a situation that could lead to tens of thousands of people being falsely arrested and possibly detained.

"That's causing a lot of fear for mixed-status families, for mixed-status groups of friends," Wiese added.

The Florida Policy Institute estimates there are about 130,000 U.S. citizens in Florida who are married to undocumented immigrants. It is conceivable that under the law, a U.S.-born spouse traveling from out of state could be charged with a third degree felony for transporting their husband or wife into Florida. Similarly, farm workers who travel together or with family could also be charged. [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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