Florida’s immigrant advocates seek federal and state reforms in face of hostile climate
Carlos Guillermo Smith, Anna Eskamani, Ted Hutchison, Wilna Destin, John Fuentes. Photo by Jacob Ogles.

At a FWD.us roundtable, lawmakers and advocates said policymakers must seek reasonable reforms that make economic sense.

In a Presidential Election year where rhetoric about the border already is cranked high, immigration reform activists are braced for attack.

Legislation focused on illegal immigration gets filed in Florida each Legislative Session, and Republicans in Congress spotlight concerns about the border at every opportunity. But advocates for immigrants and minority-owned businesses say that hasn’t changed the need for humane and realistic policy.

“It’s a challenge for a lot of these businesses, maintaining their workforce,” said Julio Fuentes, founder and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “But I believe that we need to maintain this message, at least for us anyway, at a high level because I think when you start talking dollars and cents, it resonates more.”

Fuentes was among participants earlier this month at an Orlando roundtable organized by FWD.us, a nonpartisan advocacy group focused on immigration and criminal justice reforms. There, advocates and lawmakers discussed the challenges in Florida and at the federal level in seeking moderate reforms for the many immigrants fueling Florida’s agriculture- and tourism-heavy economies.

Ted Hutchinson, the FWD.us Regional Government Relations Director in Florida, detailed the anti-immigration legislation pumped out of Tallahassee each year.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Legislature has enacted immigration status checks for employers, requirements for law enforcement agencies to work with federal agencies enforcing immigration laws, and state-level programs to relocate immigrants entering the country, even those coming in legally and who never stepped foot in Florida.

Democratic lawmakers participating in the panel said it’s been frustrating to see bills come up year after year, especially where there’s broad bipartisan agreement that the federal system for immigration into the country and any legal path to citizenship is badly broken.

“In this country, we honor hard work, and so we should respect the hard work of our immigrant community, not continuously create an environment where folks do not feel welcome,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and the child of Iranian immigrants.

Former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat voted out of the House in 2022 but currently running unopposed for Senate, said existing immigrant communities in Florida feel persecuted. But he said there’s blame to go around on that, suggesting President Joe Biden needs to do more on that front as well.

“We are calling on the Biden administration to use their power to be able to take action to ensure that almost 3 million undocumented people in the United States can get some of these protections that they have been waiting for such a long time,” Smith said.

“We know that voters obviously feel very strongly about the issue of immigration. We know that they want an orderly and secure border. What we also know is that voters overwhelmingly want the federal government to take action to help so many of those long-term undocumented residents in this country, many of them who have been here for 10 years or longer, even in the wake of congressional inaction.”

Wilna Destin. Photo by Jacob Ogles.

As violence generates unrest in Haiti, several members on the panel said the Biden administration needs to redesignate refugees from the island nation for Temporary Protected Status. One of the panelists at the FWD.us event, Wilna Destin, came to Florida years ago from Haiti, and said a prior TPS designation under President Barack Obama changed her life here and allowed her to step out of the shadows into society.

“I thanked god when that happened,” she said. “I went in and got my driver’s license. I was able to drive legally. I was able to buy a house. I was able to do so many things.”

After decades living in Orlando, she was able to pursue higher education options as well, and to start down a path toward becoming a U.S. citizen. She believes those who have to leave Haiti now, at a point when gangs have driven a former prime minister out of power and left international police trying to restore order, should be afforded the same opportunities. Nobody leaving Haiti now wants to flee their home, she said, but are doing so because the island nation has become unsafe.

Smith suggested Biden should also ensure beneficiaries of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program face an easier path to at least obtaining work visas. Those individuals, most of whom were born in other nations but raised in the U.S., currently face the threat of deportation to nations where they have no emotional bond or even a sense of safety.

“By the way, these policies that were urging the Biden administration to take action on our policies that see majority support from voters in battleground states,” Smith said.

“We’re talking about issues, like making sure those long-term undocumented spouses of US citizens have these types of protections, that we add additional TPS designations for additional countries that have seen violence, environmental disasters and other forms of political instability, we know that a majority of voters support those actions.”

Beyond the humanitarian reasons for immigration reform, Hutchinson said the status quo is also impractical. Those who want to close the nation out from any immigrants and to deport all those who are here lack a sense of scope about the situation, he said.

“You think about the undocumented immigrants, a lot of them are related to American citizens,” he said.

“There are 1.1 million undocumented spouses of American citizens. Half of them have been here for at least 15 years. We talk about people who have mixed status. Literally the attempt to uproot people and to take them away just makes no sense economically. To do it will backfire in tremendous ways that I could go on and on about. I think it’s important to note that we’re not just talking about some random abstract person. We’re talking about people who live in our community.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • 🌞

    May 28, 2024 at 5:47 pm

    What we see is language barrier.
    No one speaks English the ratio is like 2 to 1.

  • 🌞

    May 28, 2024 at 5:57 pm

    Plus you cannot run from your selves. People bring problems with them. Moving don’t help.
    Plus USA is not all about a economy it is supposed to be more.

  • LexT

    May 29, 2024 at 9:57 am

    I think Florida, Texas, and the other border states should sue the Federal Government for malfeasance on border security and illegal immigration. The effects of illegal immigration greatly disproportionately affect the border states. The other states should not be able to affect federal immigration policy to the detriment of the border states. The cost and damages to the border states are enormous and the non-border states can not take a tenth of the impact without massive complaints. Once the Swiss cheese border is closed, we can have an honest conversation on what to do with those who are here illegally.

  • rick whitaker

    May 30, 2024 at 12:25 pm

    LEXT, in the same vein, i think those same states should sue trump and johnson for interfering with the passage of a border bill that was agreed upon. that is what happened whether you want to admit it or not. it doesn’t make your side look good for sure. johnson is a bad leader and trump was just an indicted citizen and shouldn’t have had the power to screw our border up for his own use. you gop need to quit putting these fools into office that can’t function to a high enough level to be just and fair to the people of usa. so lext, if you voted gop, the mess is your fault.

Comments are closed.


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