A Florida Immigration Law Is Turning Farm Towns Into ‘Ghost Towns’ | Civil Eats

A Florida Immigration Law Is Turning Farm Towns Into ‘Ghost Towns’

Florida is one of a growing number of states threatening to use E-Verify as a way to intimidate and control farmworkers. As farmers face worker shortages and farm communities lose residents, are GOP lawmakers shooting themselves in the foot?

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Moncho had just started building a life in Florida when SB 1718, a broad law targeting both undocumented immigrants and the people in their lives, passed through the state legislature last May. In the weeks that followed, his home stopped feeling like home. He began seeing more cops and state troopers in his town, a predominantly immigrant community. He feared it would only get worse and figured it was safest to leave before the law went into effect in July.

“It was a quick decision. Once I learned about the law, I talked it over with my wife and we said, ‘OK, let’s get out of here,’” said Moncho, who is using a nickname. He has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, moving between states as a farmworker and construction worker, without getting the chance to fully make any of them his home.

“Once the law passed, there were empty houses. You went down the street, and it was ‘For rent. For Rent. For Rent’ everywhere.”

In June 2023, just weeks after the bill’s passage, Moncho and his wife packed up what they could fit into their car and drove—through the wildfire smoke that was blanketing the East Coast at the time—to Vermont to seek work in the dairy industry and build a new life for themselves, again.

They are just two of the many undocumented immigrants who have left Florida in the aftermath of the bill’s passage. In the last nine months, as workers have fled, “help wanted” signs have reportedly popped up across the state. Crops have been left to rot in fields. Entire communities emptied out and turned into “ghost towns.”

“Once the law passed, there were empty houses,” said Moncho. “You went down the street, and it was, ‘For Rent. For Rent. For Rent,’ everywhere.”

The law targets supporters of undocumented immigrants by making it a felony, under the charge of human smuggling, to knowingly transport undocumented people across state lines. Beyond that, it requires medical providers to inquire about a patient’s immigration status (although patients need not respond).

And the most potentially sweeping provision aims to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers by mandating the use of E-Verify, a web-based federal system that allows employers to confirm or deny workers’ legal status. This applies to workplaces with 25 or more employees and extends the use of E-Verify to many Florida farms that were previously exempt.

Proposed by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis as an answer to “Biden’s border crisis,” the law reflects a larger Republican strategy for the upcoming election: “The GOP’s goal is to turn the 2024 election into a referendum on the Biden administration’s handling of immigration, framed by the notion of a crisis that has spilled beyond the southern border and into cities across the country,” wrote immigration reporter Gaby Del Valle in a recent op-ed.

It’s a strategy currently on display in Congress as House Republicans appear poised to sabotage an immigration deal—even though it would crack down on the southern border—that is backed by President Biden.

But some farmers and advocates speculate that Florida’s law may be largely intended as a political spectacle that will stir chaos but ultimately lack enforcement—and began as an effort to boost DeSantis’s short-lived bid for president—while still allowing Florida industries to rely on undocumented laborers in the end.

“It’s not clear whether it’s a way for DeSantis to boost his image as somebody ‘tough on immigration’ versus a law that will have real penalties and consequences,” Deirdre Nero, a Florida-based immigrant rights advocate and lawyer, told Civil Eats. “We’ll see when they start imposing penalties if the proof is in the pudding.”

Regardless, Florida farmers, farmworkers, and lawmakers will continue to deal with the consequences of the law in the coming months and the potential for another exodus if E-Verify is enforced. As Florida looks to fill worker shortages, the law poses big questions about the future of farm labor in the U.S. as similar policies could expand elsewhere.

As the presidential election season kicks into gear, Donald Trump and other GOP candidates are promising sweeping crackdowns on undocumented workers and expanded federal mandates of the use of E-Verify. But Florida, often a bellwether of the GOP’s future, shows that even a political tool can have real consequences.

Chilling Effect

SB 1718 has already disrupted the lives and livelihood of undocumented immigrants and their communities. “It’s a political stunt gone too far,” read a letter sent in October by a group of Democratic members of Congress, led by U.S. Representative Darren Soto from Florida. The letter calls upon Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the law, which they say is “causing immense harm to families and could jeopardize Florida’s economy.”

Agriculture is one of Florida’s major industries, and along with construction and tourism, it plays a significant role in employing the state’s estimated 772,000 undocumented immigrants. Nearly half of Florida’s farmworkers are undocumented, according to the Florida Policy Institute.

“I can’t say for sure, but my understanding is that there will definitely be advocacy from the business community to try to poke holes in the E-Verify law, or even get it repealed.”

After many farmworkers began to flee, some Republican lawmakers briefly realized they may have bit the hand that, quite literally, feeds them. Last June, Representative Rick Roth, a vegetable farmer and Republican who voted for the law, pleaded with constituents to convince workers to stay. “This is more of a political bill than it is policy,” he told an audience of South Florida pastors at the time, implying that it wouldn’t be enforced with any real consequences.

So far, there have been a few arrests under the law’s human smuggling provision, which is being challenged as unconstitutional in a lawsuit. But the E-Verify mandate isn’t set to begin enforcing penalties until July.

Now, nine months after the law’s passage, some farmers are struggling to find workers to harvest crops, while farmworkers live and work with heightened uncertainty that ultimately impacts their health and safety.

Jeannie Economos coordinates a pesticide safety and environmental health program for the Farmworker Association of Florida, a group that represents more than 10,000 workers. She told Civil Eats that she typically fields complaints from them about “wages, pesticides, harassment, and other conditions in the workplace.”

But since SB 1718 passed, those complaints have slowed to a trickle, despite last summer’s record-breaking heat. A similar silence fell over the community under the Trump administration, she said, when farm workers feared speaking out.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

The E-Verify Mandate

Still largely voluntary on a federal level, the E-Verify system emerged from the Immigration Act of 1990, a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. This established a commission that recommended a national registry for checking immigration status and employment eligibility. After a series of pilots, the program became available in 2003 to employers in all states as a voluntary database. Since then, a growing number of states have mandated its use, but industry pushback often narrows the scope of these mandates.

Previous attempts to strictly enforce E-Verify have unraveled in Florida. In 2020, when DeSantis pushed for a law mandating use of the database in the hiring process, it was strongly opposed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, for instance, until it was amended to exclude farmworkers.

“Once you register that you don’t have a social security number with the government, you become immediately deportable.”

The version of the bill that passed also created loopholes for private employers, prompting some to call it “E-Verify Light” and “Fake E-Verify.” Prior to that, two other efforts to require use of the database failed to pass. The reason is clear: The current E-Verify mandate could hurt Florida’s economy to a tune of $12 billion in just one year.

“[Florida’s E-Verify mandate] has always been defeated, and it’s not defeated by the immigrants that would be impacted,” said Paul Chavez, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, representing a legal challenge to the law. “It has been defeated by the business community, including from lobbyists for farmers, tourism, and construction.”

“I can’t say for sure, but my understanding is that there will definitely be advocacy from the business community to try to poke holes in the E-Verify law, or even get it repealed,” added Chavez, who expects to see efforts to do so in the current legislative session.

Greg Schell, a lawyer who represents migrant farmworkers in Florida, thinks there is good reason to believe the E-Verify mandate will lack enforcement. “There are no regulations to guide employers,” he said. “It certainly would be plausible for an employer to claim that the returning worker is ‘grandfathered in’ and does not need to be the subject of an E-Verify inquiry.”

In other states, E-Verify mandates have often spared the agriculture industry and other industries dependent on undocumented workers, either by the law’s design or its lax enforcement. For instance, North Carolina passed a law mandating E-Verify in 2011, but carved out an exemption for “temporary seasonal workers for fewer than 90 days,” which would allow farms to continue employing, with less risk, undocumented people for seasonal work.

In 2013, this exemption was expanded to employees of less than nine months. Since then, North Carolina lawmakers have introduced several bills to carve out an even larger exemption for all farmworkers.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who served as South Carolina’s governor between 2011 and 2017, has called for a national E-Verify mandate in her campaign. She often cites the law that she helped pass in 2011 as an example. “What we did in South Carolina with E-Verify was you had to verify that that person was in this country legally or else you could not hire them,” Haley said, in an interview with Breitbart. “That’s what we put in place in South Carolina and, more importantly, we enforced it.”

However, like in other states, South Carolina’s law doesn’t require E-Verify for every employee, exempting a number of essential jobs, including farmworkers and domestic laborers. “The S.C. Farm Bureau convinced lawmakers that the E-Verify requirement could scare off migrant workers needed to harvest crops,” The State reported in 2017. A representative from South Carolina’s Department of Labor confirmed that this exemption remains in effect today.

In fact, no state has been able to enforce E-Verify across every industry, without it backfiring. Take Georgia. In 2011, when the state attempted to enforce E-Verify for nearly all employers, it triggered a mass exodus of farmworkers and an estimated $140 million loss in agricultural revenue.

“Agriculture risks losing some of its most highly skilled workers.”

The expansion of E-Verify mandates is often framed, including by former Governor Haley, as a way to protect the jobs of U.S. citizens. Yet when this policy has prompted an exodus of undocumented farmworkers, U.S. citizens haven’t exactly jumped at the opportunity to work on farms. In fact, when E-Verify mandates are strictly enforced in agriculture, they have been found to lead to worker shortages, loss in farm revenue, and shrinking farm production.

“E-Verify is a way of sharing immigration status with the government that has no positive value for either the undocumented worker or the employer,” said Mary Jo Dudley, the director of the Cornell Farmworker Program. The consequences are most dire, of course, for the farmworkers who would face criminal penalties and a heightened threat of deportation.

“[For] farmworkers, E-Verify is a pathway to share information with the government that you’re deportable,” said Dudley. “Because once you register that you don’t have a social security number with the government, you become immediately deportable.”

Questions About the Future of Farm Labor

Despite the rippling economic consequences, the promised expansion of E-Verify mandates has become increasingly central to the GOP platform. Currently, Republican lawmakers in Iowa and West Virginia are pushing for state mandates, while DeSantis, Haley, and Chris Christie campaigned for a federal mandate. E-Verify is also part of the conservative playbook, Project 2025, which plans to “permanently authorize and make mandatory E-Verify” on a federal level if a Republican wins the 2024 presidential election. 

As Congress tensely debated the latest border security bill, which was released by the Senate in early February, Republicans have repeatedly insisted on even more stringent proposals. In a recent letter, House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, pointed to the Secure the Border Act (H.R. 2), a Republican-sponsored bill that passed in the House last year—which would federally mandate E-Verify, among other sweeping measures—as reflecting his core legislative demands.

But in recent years, even major bipartisan efforts to reform immigration for farmworkers, namely the multiple versions of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, have also included E-Verify mandates. First introduced in 2019, the legislation creates a path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers, while streamlining the hiring of foreign agricultural workers with a temporary H-2A visa. Re-introduced and abandoned last year, the bill is a political compromise that has deeply divided farmworkers and their advocates, and one of the major sticking points is E-Verify.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

“There are basic things that we cannot negotiate away, and E-Verify is one of them,” said Edgar Franks, the political director at Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent farmworker union in Washington state representing Indigenous farmworkers. “[The Farm Workforce Modernization Act] is sold as immigration reform . . . but it would implement the E-Verify system for the first time across a whole industry in the United States.”

Even in Washington, where E-Verify is voluntary, Franks has observed farmers threaten to use it when engaging with the union. “We’ve seen E-Verify weaponized, especially when immigrant workers are trying to organize themselves into unions, or to get some kind of justice in their workplace,” said Franks. As he sees it, “the main intention [behind E-Verify] is always having this hanging over people’s heads—or raids or deportations—to make sure that the workforce is controllable.”

This perspective was echoed in a letter to the House Agriculture Committee’s newly formed Labor Workforce Working Group last September by a group of farmworker advocates, including the Farmworker Association of Florida and the Agricultural Justice Project, which raised concerns about the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and its E-Verify mandate.

As of September, Florida’s farms recruited over 86,000 H-2A farmworkers in 2023, already surpassing the amount recruited in 2022.

“Do not implement mandatory E-Verify for farms, since it serves as a control and scare tactic in an immigration and trade policy system that strategically created a large population of undocumented immigrant workers to ensure an exploitable labor pool,” reads the letter. “Agriculture risks losing some of its most highly skilled workers.”

Mandatory E-Verify could also create a more exploited workforce by helping funnel more farmworkers into the H-2A guestworker program. The federal program, which recruits farmworkers from other countries, has ballooned by more than 7 times between 2005 and 2022. It represents one of the only pathways to legally enter the U.S. with a high acceptance rate. Yet the program is rife with exploitation and abuse, often perpetuated by its structure: Farmworkers live in employer-supplied congregate housing, often in unfamiliar rural areas, and are not allowed to switch employers.

“The vulnerability of H-2A workers makes them an attractive workforce for growers,” reads the letter from the group of farmworker advocates. “They are tied to the grower or contractor who recruits them and can be legally fired for not meeting exhausting production quotas, or for raising issues about workplace conditions.”

In fact, the American Farm Bureau, the largest lobbyist group representing growers, has stated that they would support E-Verify mandates under one condition: a “workable guest worker program” so that farmers could more readily hire H-2A workers and curb the anticipated labor shortage. So, by making a pathway to citizenship conditional upon both an E-Verify mandate and streamlining the H-2A program, The Farm Workforce Modernization Act strikes a compromise that appeals to farmers. As Edgar Franks put it, “It’s basically a gift to the agricultural industry.”

As the state with the most H-2A workers, Florida has played a major role in driving the rapid expansion of this program, and it’s likely that it could rely on this program even more to address labor shortages. As of September, Florida’s farms recruited over 86,000 H-2A farmworkers in 2023, already surpassing the amount recruited in 2022. For comparison, California, the second biggest H-2A state, recruited nearly 46,000 workers during that time.

In recent years, Florida’s labor-intensive citrus industry has moved to nearly exclusively hiring H-2A workers, representing 95 percent of the workforce in 2022, according to the Florida Citrus Manual. If E-Verify is enforced, it’s possible other agricultural industries in Florida may follow suit.

Meanwhile, undocumented farmworkers in other parts of the country have felt the chilling effect of Florida’s law. In New York, a farmworker who asked to remain anonymous and a leader with Alianza Agricola, a group of undocumented dairy workers organizing for their rights, observed an influx of farmworkers coming from Florida to New York late last spring. He welcomed a couple families from Florida to their meetings, helping them feel at home. But witnessing this also made him worry about what could happen if a E-Verify mandate ever came to New York.

“Those of us who are farmworkers in the dairy industry are concerned about this too,” he said. “It puts the status of many workers in the food chain at risk and [people] who have been working here for 10, 15, or even 20 years—like me.”

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Food and Farm Labor

Featured

Popular

Zero-Waste Grocery Stores in Growth Mode as Consumers Seek to Ditch Plastic

Inside a re_ grocery store in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of re_grocery)

On Farms, ‘Plasticulture’ Persists

Rows of plastic-covered strawberry plants.

Oral History Project Preserves Black and Indigenous Food Traditions

Ira Wallace (left) and Sariyah Benoit sit together in Spelman College’s Victory Garden. (Photo credit: Heirloom Gardens Project)

Can AI Help Cut Plastic Waste From the Food System?