A viral video shows a reportedly abandoned Florida jobsite. Local experts say immigrants who are not authorized to work in the U.S. have fled the state out of fear of deportation.
They’re reportedly moving in response to a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week.
“Anecdotally, things have already gotten tougher in Florida in the last week,” Madelin Zavodny, labor economist and professor at the University of North Florida, told Construction Dive. “There’s a lot of fear among the unauthorized immigrant population about what the law means for them, and I’m sure their employers are getting nervous as well.”
State Bill 1718 will require private companies with more than 25 employees to use E-Verify to ensure workers’ immigration status, to prevent foreign-born individuals who are not authorized to work in the U.S. from filling jobs and using state resources.
Though proponents say it will contribute to national security, others indicate a tough road ahead for employers and workers alike, especially in construction. In 2020, there were an estimated 1.4 million foreign-born, non-citizen, Hispanic laborers in the U.S., according to CPWR — the Center for Construction Research and Training.
For employers in Florida the law brings unpredictability at a time of high labor demand and a shortage of workers.
“There’s great uncertainty as we sit here today,” said Mark Neuberger, a Florida-based labor and employment attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP. “It could all settle down or it could be disastrous.”
Complicating the matter is the May 11 expiration of Title 42, a COVID-19-era federal policy that severely limited the ability for immigrants to seek asylum for three years.
“Governors and state legislatures are taking matters into their own hands because of this influx, they have to find a way to address it. They’re being failed by the federal government in not addressing this.”
Senior Director of Legislative Affairs, ABC
Now that it has lapsed, immigration hawks have voiced concern that it will open the floodgates to even more illegal entries at the border, though that expected wave has yet to materialize. Employer groups have advocated for immigration reform, seeking to protect both immigrant workers and the builders who want to legally employ them.
Moving to E-Verify
E-Verify is an online federal system that allows employers to confirm eligibility of employees to work in the U.S. On July 1, Florida will join nine other states that have E-Verify requirement laws for private employers:
- North Carolina.
- South Carolina.
Employers that don’t comply with the new Florida law face fines of $1,000 a day.
Peter Comstock, senior director of legislative affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, said the advice to ABC members is simple: Be in compliance with the law.
But compliance can be a corrective action or balancing on a tightrope. Some companies may trim their workforce and walk along “the knife’s edge” of staffing 24 employees in order to dodge the new law, suggested Hector Sandoval, assistant professor of economics at the University of Florida.
Florida’s E-Verify law is forward looking, meaning immigrants currently employed under the current I-9 system would be grandfathered in, and their employers would be technically compliant, according to Neuberger, the attorney.
Come July, Florida will mandate employers use E-Verify along with the existing I-9 forms, which will still be used as part of the process of confirming the validity of an employee’s eligibility status. As it stands now, the I-9 form alone is a system that is easier to circumvent for unauthorized workers, who can get documentation like drivers’ licenses in some states, said Neuberger.
Using just an I-9 also doesn’t require employers to keep copies of their workers’ documents, Neuberger said. But E-Verify does.
“All you have is the employer’s verification that they looked at [the documents],” he said of the I-9 system.
In the long-term, experts like Neuberger said the law creates uncertainty, and could even become “disastrous.”
Sandoval emphasized how much southern Florida depends on immigrant labor. He pointed to the Spanish-speaking construction workers outside his office window who are currently building projects on the Gainesville, Florida, campus.
“If we get hit with some hurricanes this year, think about who does a lot of the rebuilding. We rely on immigrant labor a lot in general.”
Labor Economist and Professor, University of North Florida
Sandoval, along with several other sources, told Construction Dive he had heard of workers fleeing Florida, leaving jobsites empty. Neuberger said workers reportedly traveled to other construction hot spots like New York City.
The new law will also increase human trafficking and smuggling penalties for people, including U.S. citizens, raising it up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison for transporting five or more undocumented people or an undocumented minor into the state of Florida.
This has raised concerns, Vox reported, as some workers regularly travel from state to state for jobs. In addition, the law would apply to U.S. citizens driving family members who are not authorized to be in the U.S.
DeSantis said the law pushes back against the “Biden border crisis,” charging that the federal government has abandoned its national security duties.
“The legislation I signed today gives Florida the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, fighting back against reckless federal government policies and ensuring the Florida taxpayers are not footing the bill for illegal immigration,” DeSantis said during the bill's signing.
Despite the political wrangling, Zavodny said that immigrants fill vital jobs that benefit most Americans. From construction to agriculture to custodial services, immigrants come to the U.S. and perform work the country needs.
Most immigrants are not competing directly with U.S. citizens for work, Zavodny said. Forcing their absence from the workorce could further contribute to the potential disaster she sees ahead.
“If we get hit with some hurricanes this year, think about who does a lot of the rebuilding,” Zavodny said. “We rely on immigrant labor a lot in general.”
But the biggest key to uncertainty is enforcement, Neuberger said, which is already a challenge for current laws. A state government led by DeSantis, whose name is consistently in the mix for a run at the White House, however, may apply the law to the fullest extent.
The beginning of more E-Verify states?
Title 42’s expiration signifies a failure on the hands of the federal government, Comstock said.
The end of the policy created a wealth of uncertainty and confusion as to how the thousands of people crossing the border in places like Texas and Arizona could secure asylum from the U.S., but didn’t result in a massive increase in immigrants crossing the border as some had predicted, according to NPR.
Without a more robust immigration system from the federal government, Comstock said, more states are likely to adopt laws, perhaps even E-Verify mandates, on their own.
“Governors and state legislatures are taking matters into their own hands because of this influx, they have to find a way to address it,” Comstock said. “They’re being failed by the federal government in not addressing this.”
Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Associated General Contractors of America, said the country has allowed too few legal entrants to the country while some employers take advantage of cheaper, unauthorized immigrant labor.
“We need tighter border security so we don’t have so many undocumented workers in the country who are likely to be exploited by unscrupulous contractors,” Turmail said. “And we need a path to legal status — not necessarily citizenship — for those undocumented workers who are currently here and already engaged in our economy.”
Contractors and other industry leaders may have to wait a bit longer for any type of federal guidance on immigration. The House of Representatives passed an immigration reform bill on May 11, which would restart border wall construction and restrict asylum, according to Roll Call. Nonetheless, the bill received no support from Democrats, and likely won’t make it through the Senate nor receive approval from President Joe Biden.
Zavodny said she hopes the process for allowing asylum seekers to work is expedited.
“A lot of them are young men who will work in construction very happily,” she said.
Overall, she said improving the legal immigration process to permit more workers to find employment in the U.S. could have generationally beneficial impacts.
“For most of us, it’s great. Over time and generations, it’s just good to have more workers,” she said.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to more accurately explain the difference and overlap between the I-9 and E-Verify systems.