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Undocumented: Living, working under Florida's strict immigration law in Palm Beach

Construction workers plaster the exterior of a new apartment building, July 5, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. Undocumented workers live in fear and anxiety after a new law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law targets them and employers with 25 or more employees which mandates they verify that their workers are legally allowed to work. Many workers affected are employed in the construction, agriculture and hospitality industries.
John Raoux
/
AP
Construction workers plaster the exterior of a new apartment building, July 5, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. Undocumented workers live in fear and anxiety after a new law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

July 1 was a difficult day for Lucho.

That was the day that SB 1718 went into effect, allocating funds for undocumented immigrant relocation and putting pressure on employers not to hire undocumented workers or to report them to immigration authorities.

“People told me nothing is going to happen, others said everything is going to get worse,” said Lucho, a 39-year-old construction worker who asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of deportation. “I understood that now I could be pulled aside in a grocery store and be asked to show papers.”

In May, after signing SB 1718 into law, DeSantis said in a press release, that it "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.”

The new law increases funding for the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program, and requires employers to register employees under E-verify to make sure employees have documents to work. It also fines employers for hiring or keeping undocumented workers, including imposing a daily fine of $1,000 and “allowing for the suspension of employer licenses after multiple findings of noncompliance.” Senate Bill 1718 also requires hospitals that use Medicaid to ask for a patient's immigration status.

DeSantis has made a hawkish line on immigration his calling card. From flying dozens of new immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 to saying in a current campaign ad that “DeSantis deployed troops to the southern border to stop the invasion," the Florida governor has been betting on the idea that bold moves on immigration would win over voters.

According to KFF, formerly known as Kaiser Family Foundation, legally present and undocumented immigrants make up 1.8 million people, or about 8% of Florida's total population. Non-citizen immigrants also make up 23% of all construction workers in Florida.

Lucho and his family are a part of both demographics — and live in fear of a run-in with authorities or a late-night knock on the door.

Sometimes law enforcement isn’t the only issue undocumented workers face. Trouble can come from regular citizens. The same person who helped Lucho get his first apartment was scamming him the entire time, nearly leading to his eviction, he said. However, Lucho would soon find help through his community and Peruvian tradition.

For undocumented, living in fear

Lucho could at any moment be picked up, detained and deported by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.). But as he sees it, he is just doing what other immigrants did before him: trying to achieve the American dream. Lucho came to Florida with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in December 2022 to make that dream a reality after living most of his life in Argentina, though he is from Peru. They overstayed their six-month travel visa, and wound up in Palm Beach County.

After a hot day on the job at a construction site, Lucho explained in a conversation in Spanish that life after the passage of the bill has been challenging.

“During the summer I saw a lot of people I knew leave Florida because they were scared. People saying they were going to other states. I already have a family here so I made the decision to stay,” said Lucho, dressed in work boots, jeans and a neon blue shirt.

Lucho from the waist down after a day on the construction site.
Christopher Vargas
/
MediaLab@FAU
Lucho from the waist down after a day on the construction site.

Lucho and his wife were both employed before the bill became law. Lucho works construction while his wife works as a cleaning lady. Despite their busy arrangements, a parent is always at home with their daughter. Both parents need to work to pay rent and living essentials for themselves.

Lucho hasn’t had any run-ins with immigration control in his time in America, but he still feels the pressure of legislation getting stronger for undocumented immigrants like him.

Struggle for housing

Due to his undocumented status, he also faced housing issues when he first came to Florida.

“In the first few months it was hard. Before I had an apartment, we would live in hotels night after night,” said Lucho. “There are available apartments out there but they require documents.”

But a friend offered to get an apartment in his name, to circumvent the documentation requirement. In exchange for rent payment Lucho’s friend would cover the paperwork.

However in mid-July, Lucho was given a notice that he didn’t pay months of rent. In reality, the now-estranged “friend” had not been giving the landlord rent money at all, and has since disappeared without a trace.

Lucho isn’t the only one to fall victim to these scams.

Yesica Ramirez, Apoka area organizer of the Farm Workers Association of Florida, aids immigrant workers and has seen pattern this before.

“In this moment we have seen cases where people have fallen for housing scams. They pay the deposit and they pay for the first couple of payments but then they’re kicked out because they weren’t paying the owners,” Ramirez said in an interview.

Lucho was sure that letting a citizen pay the rent for him was a safe way to keep an apartment — until he got his eviction notice.

“I was living there paying him rent close to $2,000 a month for six months plus the down payment. It was around $16,000 total,” said Lucho. “I don't know where he went but he just took my money and ruined his credit.”

Fortunately, Lucho was quickly able to find a new apartment complex to rent from that did accept him. However, as he was short on cash, there wasn’t much to do on such short notice.

“As if it was a gift from God I was able to find a place to rent that accepted me less than 10 minutes away from where I previously lived,” said Lucho, who remains optimistic despite the situation.

However there's a new issue present: rent money. With a fast-approaching deadline to raise funds for his new lease, Lucho didn’t know what else to do. So he opted for an old, reliable money-making method from Peru: hosting a pollada.

“A ‘pollada’ is a Peruvian dish with chicken, rice, beans and more that is usually sold to raise money for tough times,” said Lucho. “It was actually my wife’s idea to do one since it's so successful in Peru.”

In Peruvian culture, a pollada is a dish, a party and a fundraiser all in one. The dish involves a mix of rotisserie chicken, potatoes, rice and salad. It would be sold plate-by-plate at a reasonable price of $12 to raise funds for a variety of causes.

Music, drinks and most importantly, chicken would be present. The occasion for a pollada would vary from paying expensive medical bills or an act of charity to help get a family off the streets.

A pollada doesn’t happen very often and is usually a rare occurrence in America.

So the following weekend, in front of his apartment, he hosted his pollada with help from his wife. It was a big success, and a small community came together to help out.

“A pollada usually takes the whole day, but because it was in my apartment, I had to end it early. The turnout was good. It went on from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. I put on music and sold beer for the party,” said Lucho.

Lucho had raised enough money — about $2,000 — to be able to afford his new apartment in West Palm Beach.

Through this experience Lucho has gained a sense of optimism, one that contrasts with how he felt when SB 1718 was first put into effect.

“I understand that every country and every state has their own rules, that makes sense to me because it makes sense for the authority figure to make those rules [to protect their people]. It could also be that there are always going to be bad Latino delinquents,” said Lucho.

Lucho views the new legislation as part of a bigger problem that Latinos are being placed in a stereotype that undocumented immigrants are bad people.

“We all fall in the same basket that way. We’re not just Juan, Pedro, or Paulo, but we are all in the same basket,” said Lucho.

After the pollada, Lucho was able to easily move into his new apartment. He still lives in West Palm Beach and works in the same construction company.

This story was produced by MediaLab@FAU, a project of Florida Atlantic University School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, as part of a content sharing partnership with the WLRN newsroom. The reporter can be reached here.

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