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A new law will affect how some immigrants in Florida access work and medical care

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new law in Florida targeting undocumented people takes effect July 1. It requires hospital patients to show their immigration status, and companies with more than 25 employees must use the E-Verify system to make sure workers are in the country legally. WLRN's Wilkine Brutus attended a meeting of immigrants in South Florida who are figuring out how the new law could affect them.

WILKINE BRUTUS, BYLINE: Across the street from Lake Worth High School in Palm Beach County, dozens of immigrants sit in a dark room, bowing their heads in prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

BRUTUS: This isn't a church, though. The group is gathered at the Guatemalan-Maya Center, and so many immigrants showed up to learn more about Florida's new immigration law that they needed an overflow room. The group listened to a Zoom call with legal experts who are trying to clear up misinformation about SB 1718.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If they get stopped, do they have the right to record the situation?

BRUTUS: After the meeting, I spoke to an Indigenous Guatemalan woman who asked me not to use her name to protect her privacy. She said the law is especially frightening for people in the area who speak Mayan languages. Despite her own fear and uncertainty, she volunteers to translate information about the law for her Indigenous neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They don't speak Spanish. They don't speak English. They don't understand exactly what happened because they have other language. We have, like, Mam, Poptiʼ, Qʼanjobʼal, Kʼicheʼ. It's, like, 20 dialect.

BRUTUS: She speaks most of the languages. Her kids were born in the U.S., so her family is what people refer to as mixed status. Like many Guatemalans, she moved to Lake Worth Beach after fleeing poverty and ongoing violence. She says some immigrants wrestle with the decision to trek toward immigrant-friendly states.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Personally, I'm so scared. Everything - it's changed because the community, it's so scared.

BRUTUS: Among many provisions, the new law requires that companies E-Verify workers' immigration status and invalidates out-of-state ID cards like a driver's license.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A lot of people, it's moving. I contact Massachusetts and, like, three family moves there. Pennsylvania - it's two families move in Pennsylvania. But sometimes they don't have family, and they don't know how they can go there. So it's so, so sad.

BRUTUS: Republican Representative Rick Roth, whose district includes parts of Palm Beach County, has been trying to convince immigrants to stay.

RICK ROTH: Well, we're hearing stories about employees already leaving. Some people are saying that they're being told that if they leave now, they can get a, you know, job in another state, but if they wait too long, you know, there won't be any jobs left.

BRUTUS: He's also a farmer and keeps telling his employees that they are safe and the law will only affect new immigrants. Another provision in the law requires hospitals to ask each patient about their immigration status and report the data to the state. Danna Torres, the clinic director at the Guatemalan-Maya Center, is reassuring her clients that by federal law, they can still receive medical care, and if they're asked about their immigration status, she says they don't have to answer.

DANNA TORRES: It's just that one question that's now going to be asked, and you can decline to answer it. So I feel like if we can just focus on that piece of it and not add on to it, we can help minimize the fears.

BRUTUS: Torres says many critics of the law focus on how it will affect the economy, not how it will affect those targeted by the law.

TORRES: You see people sharing videos about - look at these construction sites. They're now empty. And, yes, like, that is an important point to make. But also, all those jobs are very exploitive. And so we want to preserve our communities because we love our communities, because they contribute so much to us and because they're a part of us, not because of their labor value. And I think that sometimes those conversations get lost in trying to make a point.

BRUTUS: Torres says the center launched a fundraiser to support people who decide to leave the state while, at the same time, trying to convince others to stay.

For NPR News, I'm Wilkine Brutus in Lake Worth Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wilkine Brutus
Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.