ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The video showing busloads of migrant workers arriving at a hotel in Maitland, a wealthier white suburb on the northern border of Orange County, touched a nerve.
Never mind the workers came to the United States legally. Never mind they were employed at a local farm that paid for the hotel rooms. Never mind that they were working jobs no American was willing to do, at a pay rate that kept food at the Publix two miles away from doubling in price.
For immigration opponents who repeatedly claim they support legal immigration and farmers, the visuals were enough.
“Four busloads of illegals being dropped off from the Southern Border,” a far-right commentator from Montana claimed, without evidence. “All 18-25 year old [sic] able-bodied men.”
Far-right politicians took the bait.
“Hundreds of illegals were just SHIPPED into my congressional district yesterday,” State Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R) tweeted, sharing the video and following up with a link that led to a campaign donation site.
Two days later, he announced he had raised more than $775,000, though the time frame was unclear.
The visa program
It didn’t take a lot of digging to find out the “illegals” cited by the tweets were actually H-2A workers in the United States thanks to a visa program that’s specifically meant to bring temporary agricultural labor in.
H-2A is restricted to temporary, seasonal jobs when American labor is unavailable, such as on farms and citrus groves. Workers are brought in by bus or overnight flight when scheduling planes is easier and cheaper.
The program places a lot of burden on the farmer employing them.
“One of the obligations is that they pay them a specific rate, and that is approved by the Department of Labor,” immigration attorney Henry Lim, of Lim Law in Orlando, said. “Another requirement is that they provide housing and medical insurance for these individuals so that they’re protected should something happen.”
That meant the protests sparked by tweets like Sabatini’s was a legally mandated part of the process of keeping the workers safe.
Some social media users pointed out none of the largely white crowd of men and women, some of whom told Eyewitness News crews they knew the workers were legal, were offering to work the fields instead.
“Americans are not willing to do these jobs,” Lim said. “Without these workers… we would have a shortage of supply. And our farmers would have spoiled merchandise or spoiled fruits sitting in their farms, and they would be taking significant losses.”
Lim called the protest “frustrating,” given conservatives’ history of applauding legal immigration as they pressed for more hardline border policies. He admitted some migrant workers overstay their visas, but the majority are simply trying to provide for their families.
“You’re just upset that it’s happening here in your backyard,” he said.
The border problem
Much of the conversation around unauthorized immigration these days is rhetoric from both sides of the aisle. Democrats, usually playing defense, draw up pictures of children huddled in cages in Texas from the Trump era of separating families. Republicans speak of immigrants in dehumanizing ways, talking about swarms and stampedes across the border.
“If you look at just the absolute explosion of illegal migrants across the southern border, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday in Miami during a roundtable discussion about immigration.
With COVID fading from the spotlight, the governor has renewed his focus on the subject as an attack against President Joe Biden, as DeSantis gears up for a near-certain White House run in 2024.
Lim was adamant about many things, given his two decades in all forms of immigration law, but there was something he wanted to make clear from the beginning: claims of busloads of undocumented immigrants being brought to Central Florida were more fantasy than fact.
“The majority of people who come to the United States, including Central Florida, come lawfully to the United States,” he said. “They come lawfully with visas. They become undocumented when they overstay that visa.”
He did not contest that there was a problem at the border, though he said a physical wall or similar structure was a waste of money and an easy emotional ploy for political support.
The immigration problem, he said, boiled down to two things: history and a broken system. The history part was simple.
“Many people from Mexico cross the border or attempt to cross the border so much because historically, that’s what they’ve always done,” Lim said. “They’re coming in to do the work, and then they go back home with what they’ve earned.”
He suggested renewed education efforts to teach workers the proper way to apply for a visa and navigate the do’s and don’ts of modern immigration policy.
However, the fix is far more complicated on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, where years of politics and emotions have created an unworkable situation for people who overstay their visas or otherwise cross unlawfully, then start a family and life here.
“You cannot get your green card within the U.S. because of the way that you entered,” the attorney explained. “But if you leave the U.S., you’re subject to a 10-year penalty where you can’t come back for 10 years, and there’s no in-between.”
Lim suggested comprehensive immigration reform that penalized people, but in a less harsh way, such as a fine or public service. In return, they’d be granted documentation and allowed to stay with their spouses or kids as a legal resident.
He also said a new system would be needed for the business owners and employers who traditionally look the other way. Along with the new path to citizenship, he said a policy would be needed to further discourage hiring undocumented workers.
“If we don’t address the issue of undocumented workers at the employer level, if we’re just attacking the individual, this problem will never be solved,” he said.
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