Florida’s immigrants face barriers in hurricane relief under DeSantis policies

Migrant workers also stung by governor’s call to hire ‘locals’ while some employers withhold pay

Hurricane Ian’s direct hit on Florida has devastated numerous communities throughout south-west and central Florida, with damage estimates ranging from $30bn to $100bn, and thousands of people likely left jobless.

Rebuilding the state will be a huge undertaking, but underlying the devastation and recovery efforts are the impacts on Florida’s immigrant communities and the barriers they face in receiving federal relief and support under the state’s rightwing Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has pushed anti-immigrant policies in the state. An estimated 772,000 undocumented immigrants live in Florida.

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, executive director of the non-profit Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Florida, said that many community members, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, are facing food security problems due to power outages that have caused them to lose income and food to spoil.

“The ongoing crisis is acute and it’s impacting immigrants in a disproportionate way,” said Sousa-Lazaballet. “Undocumented immigrants and others with immigration statuses such as temporary protective status or DACA may actually not qualify for relief as it is now, and money for hurricane relief is typically run through the state – and we know the governor is extremely anti-immigrant.”

Shortly before Ian hit, DeSantis made national headlines by running charter flights of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, and he is under investigation over suspected misuse of funds for the flights. DeSantis has claimed without evidence that the migrants had intentions to travel to Florida.

DeSantis has also pushed for local Florida workers to be hired for debris removal (undocumented migrant workers are often relied on for hurricane cleanup efforts).

DeSantis publicized a case of three undocumented immigrants who were arrested for theft in the wake of the hurricane and has promoted narratives linking undocumented immigrants to crime in campaign advertisements. He has also falsely claimed his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, supports open borders.

This anti-immigrant rhetoric contributes to the fear immigrants have in seeking relief or assistance from Ian’s impacts.

“Immigration status is one of the biggest barriers that they face in even feeling comfortable asking for help,” said Neza Xiuhtecutli, executive director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, based in Apopka, Florida. Around half of the estimated 700,000 farm workers in Florida are undocumented immigrants.

Xiuhtecutli said that farm workers, who are predominantly migrants from Latin Americ,a do not make much income and have lost work, especially when crop damage thwarts workers who do not have access to unemployment benefits or other social safety net programs.

“A lot of them do not qualify for [Federal Emergency Management Agency] or any kind of federal money,” added Xiuhtecutli. “The fact a lot of them are undocumented – even if they do qualify – prevents them from coming forward to ask for help because they see that it might jeopardize their families’ ability to remain.”

Daniel Castellanos, director of workforce engagement with the non-profit Resilience Force and a former migrant worker who assisted in recovery and repair in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, has been on the ground in south-west Florida assisting migrant workers with problems such as wage theft. He said contractors and homeowners are exploiting migrant workers, hiring them to perform debris removal or repair work, and then often leveraging the fact that many of them do not speak English and refusing to pay them.

“The biggest problem we are looking at now is wage theft,” said Castellanos. “We’re working on a format for them to avoid this problem because when we talk with the police, usually they say this is not enforceable.”

Castellanos is working with other organizers to develop a contract format for workers to get their jobs put in writing. Castellanos said that many migrant workers are hired outside stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s, where contractors or homeowners buy supplies. If they have wages stolen and the police are called, the authorities often only hear the employer’s side due to language difficulties. Compounding the wage theft problem, employers often do not take responsibility for injuries suffered on the job.

Castellanos also noted there is a lack of housing and bathroom and shower access for workers; additionally, they are often treated like criminals or referred to immigration enforcement for sleeping in parking lots or for reporting abuses.

“A few weeks ago DeSantis said he does not need immigrants. He sent immigrants to other states, then after the hurricane he needs us because we are doing the reconstruction,” Castellanos added. “These workers are people that rebuild lives and cities destroyed by the hurricanes, and these people are heroes in some ways.”

Thomas Kennedy, an immigration activist in Florida who grew up undocumented, criticized DeSantis’s broader anti-immigration policies, which have included signing legislation to restrict sanctuary cities, mandating law enforcement agencies work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, instructing employers to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees and attempting to shut down immigrant child centers in the state.

“Conservatives love to use the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ narrative. Undocumented individuals – I grew up undocumented – we are experts at pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in our day-to-day lives. There’s no federal assistance, no social programs, no social safety net, no welfare programs and that includes, for the most part, federal disaster relief,” said Kennedy. “Every time there is a major storm that impacts any region of Florida, the people responsible for doing the labor of rebuilding the infrastructure are migrants hired on a temporary basis, and they come here and are subjected to low pay, inappropriate labor practices, wage theft – but they’re the ones that get the job done.”


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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