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Businesses in Florida struggle after one year of strict immigration law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly a year ago, Florida approved one of the toughest immigration laws in the nation. SB 1718 punishes employers who use undocumented labor and forbids undocumented people from having a driver's license. This week, we're bringing you stories about the impact of that law - today, the economic effect. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's early morning in Plant City, a small agricultural town in Southwest Florida. The pickers are already hunched over the bushes, plucking strawberries.

FIDEL SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Fidel Sanchez instructs his workers to get rid of the fruit that fell and rotted on the ground. There's a lot of it. Like other farmers I speak to out here, he's worried about how long he'll be able to keep going. About a year ago, Florida governor and then-presidential candidate Ron Desantis passed one of the toughest crackdowns on undocumented immigration in the country. The federal government estimates that, nationwide, over 40% of farm workers are undocumented.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish)?

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Sanchez says the effect of the law was immediate. Families he'd worked with for 20 or 30 years headed north from one day to the next.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "The government doesn't care," he says. "Maybe they think the crops are going to pick themselves."

The Florida Policy Institute estimates that this immigration law could cost the state economy $12.6 billion in its first year. A spokesperson for Florida Governor Ron Desantis told NPR, quote, "Governor Desantis signed the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration law in the country to protect Floridians" and that Florida can still maintain a robust economy. But Ron Hetrick, a senior economist at Lightcast, a labor market analytics company, says the state already has a serious labor shortage, even if just a fraction of the estimated nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants are forced to leave.

RON HETRICK: We have a lot of fast-growing cities here. How do these cities get built? How do the houses get built? We all know very well how these things are being built.

GARSD: Hetrick says what Florida is facing is symbolic of the larger reality in the country - an aging population and politicians framing immigration as a threat other than a potential asset.

HETRICK: The future - if you look at census projections for the growth of this country, once this - the boomer population goes through in the next, you know, 15 years, without immigration, we shrink.

GARSD: A spokesperson for Ron Desantis told NPR that businesses are still free to hire immigrants as long as it's legally. In 2023, Florida hired thousands more H-2A guest workers than the year before. That's a temporary agricultural visa. But farmers NPR spoke to said the bureaucracy of H-2A and cost is crippling. There've also been widespread reports of H-2A worker exploitation by farmers attempting to make up for those costs.

GARY WISHNATZKI: The H-2A system is absolutely broken. It's our only means of getting workers at the farm right now, but it's totally outdated.

GARSD: That's Gary Wishnatzki, the head of Wish Farms, also based in Plant City, one of the largest strawberry growers in the nation. His field harvesters in Florida are all on H-2A visas. Even for a company as large as them, the cost has become crushing. He has to pay a labor recruitment company, visa application fees, house workers, pay for meals and transportation.

WISHNATZKI: The berries are going to become an item that's going to be a luxury, not something people buy every time they go to the grocery store like they do now.

GARSD: In the end, he pays 23% more than the Florida minimum wage. The farmers NPR spoke to out here say, despite that, American workers simply aren't showing up for these jobs. It's not just agriculture. NPR spoke to hoteliers, construction business and restaurant owners who said Florida's labor shortage, combined with arthritic national immigration policies, is hurting the bottom line.

DAVID CROWTHER: Years ago, you put an ad in the newspaper, you'd have a bunch of applications filled out or, you know, you'd have people lined up outside your door, right?

GARSD: That's David Crowther, one of the owners of CFS Roofing Services in Fort Myers. Because Florida is in the path of hurricanes, roofing is in high demand here, and Crowther says people are no longer lining up for job openings.

CROWTHER: That doesn't happen. It just doesn't.

GARSD: About 10% of his workers left after Florida passed its immigration bill. They were scared for the safety of their undocumented family members. At the end of the day, Crowther says if he could hire more immigrant labor, it would trickle down into more jobs for American workers.

CROWTHER: If I knew I could get an unlimited supply of labor, I then would start hiring estimators and salesmen over to start promoting more work. It's a domino effect.

GARSD: Crowther says business is good, but it could be so much better if only he could find more workers. For others in Florida, it's not business as usual. It's been unraveling.

ANA MARIA PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: A few miles north, at a fruit market, I meet a woman sitting in the cool shade of her fruit stand. Her name is Ana Maria Perez. She got to Florida 20 years ago.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "It's real," she says. "Farms don't have the workforce they used to, so now the cost of fruit rose for us."

Perez herself started as a fruit picker when she came from Mexico. It was physically grueling. This fruit stand was supposed to be a step up. But once the law went into effect...

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "You should have seen it," she says. "Last year, the mangoes and mameys falling on the ground - no one to pick."

Perez says she's leaving Florida soon. She's done. She shakes her head and gets back to packing some limes.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "We all lost out here," she says. "We all lost."

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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