Immigrant workers from across the US raced to Florida to help rebuild after Hurricane Ian devastated the region.
But now, nearly a year later and days after another major hurricane hit, some of those workers say this time they’re staying home.
Saket Soni, whose nonprofit Resilience Force advocates for thousands of disaster response workers, says there’s one clear reason behind the shift: Florida’s new immigration law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed.
In a survey Resilience Force conducted over several months this summer, Soni says more than half of the nonprofit organization’s roughly 2,000 members said they would not travel to Florida to help with hurricane recovery efforts because of the law. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia, he says, many remain concerned.
“They felt very fearful,” says Soni, the organization’s executive director. “No amount of money would be worth it if it meant they would be incarcerated or deported.”
Normally, Soni says Resilience Force workers wouldn’t think twice before heading to a disaster zone.
The group is made up largely of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, Soni says. And much like migrant workers who follow harvest seasons and travel from farm to farm, they crisscross the US to help clean up and rebuild when disaster strikes. Soni says many of them see the skills they’ve honed over years of responding to major storms as a calling, in addition to a means of supporting their families.
“Sadly,” he says, “you have all of these workers sitting in Houston and in New Orleans, coming to our offices, asking us, is there a chance this law will be repealed? Is there any chance they could go?”
CNN has reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment. In May, the Florida governor and aspiring GOP presidential candidate signed what he touted as “the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country.” The measure – also known as SB1718 – went into effect on July 1. It includes provisions that:
– Make it a third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport someone who’s undocumented into the state
– Require business with at least 25 workers to use E-Verify, a federal program that checks workers’ immigration status
– Invalidate driver’s licenses issued to unauthorized immigrants in other states
– Require certain hospitals in Florida to ask patients about their immigration status
At a press conference after he signed the bill, DeSantis described its passage as a “great victory.”
“In Florida, we want businesses to hire citizens and legal immigrants. But we want them to follow the law and not (hire) illegal immigrants, and that’s not that hard to do,” he said. “And once we get that kind of as a norm in our society, I think we’re going to be a lot better off.”
Supporters of the law have said stopping undocumented immigrants from coming to the state and pushing out those who already live in Florida is part of their aim.
Critics call the law “draconian” and argue that it’s hurting the state’s economy and putting immigrant communities on edge.
“People are living in fear,” says Adriana Rivera, communications director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Before it went into effect, the law spurred a travel advisory from one of the most prominent Latino advocacy groups in the United States. And immigrant advocates warn that concerns over the law have already caused some workers in key industries like agriculture and construction to leave Florida.
“This law is particularly problematic because it really doesn’t benefit anyone. This law was created to demonize the state’s immigrant communities that have been so critical in building our state and growing our economy,” says Samuel Vilchez Santiago, Florida state director for the American Business Immigration Coalition.
CNN teams reporting in Florida since Idalia hit haven’t observed any worker shortages.
But in recent months, Vilchez says he’s received multiple reports from managers who’ve showed up to construction sites expecting to see workers and instead found the worksites abandoned.
Soni, Resilience Force’s executive director, says he watched a similar scene unfold a week after the law passed.
“I remember being there one afternoon and talking to a worker at lunchtime. … And he, quite literally, while he was talking to me was packing his tools into his pickup truck and leaving with his crew.”
It was an early sign, Soni says, of harms caused by the immigration law.
“It’s really undermining the ability of Floridians to recover after a hurricane,” he says. “It’s upending the possibility of homes being rebuilt.”
For Josue, a 23-year-old from Honduras who lives in Texas and works in home remodeling, it’s been hard to watch news reports from Florida showing Hurricane Idalia’s aftermath.
“I feel powerless, seeing how all these people need help,” he says.
Josue, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s undocumented, says he knows how hard it is for families to clean up and move forward after disaster strikes.
“We’ve had hurricanes like this hit Honduras, and people have helped us,” he says. “And that’s one reason I want to help. We do it with all our hearts. We do it because we are all equal.”
Last year, he spent months in the Fort Myers area rebuilding homes “from top to bottom” – some still swamped with floodwaters, some with roofs ripped off.
This year, he says he doesn’t feel safe returning to the state.
Neither does 30-year-old Javier, who lives in New Orleans and also asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s undocumented.
After a few months remodeling homes in Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian last year, Javier says he sensed the atmosphere in the community shifting. Rumors swirled of undocumented workers getting arrested. He fled to Louisiana after hearing that more raids were imminent.
“If it was like that then, imagine how it would be now, with this law,” he says.
He thinks of the many family members he’s supporting, like his 12-year-old daughter in Honduras, who wants to be a surgeon when she grows up. And he thinks of his two sons living in Louisiana.
“I can’t lose my freedom,” he says. “I can’t lose my family just to earn a few more dollars.”
He’s worried about damage from this hurricane – and the next one
Officials are still surveying the damage Hurricane Idalia left behind when the Category 3 storm made landfall last week in Florida’s Big Bend region.
So far, despite the storm’s intensity, experts say the damage appears to be less extensive than other major hurricanes, partly because Idalia made landfall in a less populated region.
Hurricane Idalia caused between $12 billion and $20 billion in damage and lost output, according to a preliminary cost estimate from Moody’s Analytics. Hurricane Ian caused an estimated $112.9 billion of total damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Even though the damage from this storm isn’t as extensive, Soni says his contacts in the state still report that significant help is needed.
“There’s pretty major devastation in rural areas. There’s a lot of fallen trees. There’s a lot of homeowners in rural areas trying to clean their yards, and an older population of homeowners that needs the help,” Soni says.
While worker shortages in the wake of Idalia haven’t been reported, Soni says that’s a very real possibility if another major storm strikes the state this hurricane season, which ends November 30.
Forecasters are currently eying Hurricane Lee in the Atlantic, although they say it’s too soon to know whether the storm will strike the mainland US.
“Thankfully this recent hurricane, Idalia, did not hit a major city, but the next hurricane could hit the day after tomorrow,” Soni says. “It could come for Jacksonville or Tampa or Tallahassee. And at that point the governor would have a massive rebuilding effort on his hands, and no workers to fuel it. That’s really the situation that I’m concerned about.”
That, too, would be a disaster, Soni says – but one that he says is man-made, and avoidable.
CNN’s Matt Egan, Gloria Pazmino, Bill Kirkos, Carlos Suarez, Denise Royal, Isabel Rosales, Laura Robinson and Elisabeth Buchwald contributed to this report.