As Congress Weighs Immigration Overhaul, Different Perspectives On What It Means For Florida

Jun 21, 2013

Recent polls show most Floridians in favor of an immigration overhaul bill pending in Congress. The effort is partly spearheaded by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who may even have the backing of Governor Rick Scott. But the road to immigration reform is a rocky one in Florida.

Outside Senator Marco Rubio’s Tallahassee Office, a large, brightly colored bus pulls up.  One by one, a group of nuns step out to cheers and applause:

“We right now have a sub-class. We have a group of people living in our country, contributing to our country...being our friends, neighbors and co-workers, and yet they are not equal," says Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, outlining the Catholic Political lobby group Network’s desire to see the immigration reform bill pass Congress.

Network is the sponsor of the Nuns on the Bus tour. And Sister Lacy is urging Senator Rubio to keep pushing  for the immigration bill he, and the rest of the members of the bipartisan “gang of 8” helped craft. But in recent weeks, blow-back to the bill has increased. Jack Oliver with the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, says the immigration bill puts American workers at a disadvantage.

"No one is against immigration, but immigration should benefit the country. In this bill there’s something for everybody. Democrats are going to get more voters out of it. Republicans get their continued source of cheap labor. What’s in this for the American worker?” 

For Oliver, the issue is a matter of economics, and he rejects one of the bill’s biggest tenants. A 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The proposal also tightens boarder security and grants more visas to workers from outside the country.

Those visas are a big deal for one of Florida’s largest industries: Agriculture. John Hoblick, President of the Florida Farm Bureau, says he supports the overall effort, but he does draw some lines in the sand:

"Giving them the status of being able to work in this country, but not giving them full-fledged citizenship, requiring them to go back after a time is, I think, a fair and equitable way of dealing with this issue," he said.

Hoblick says the agriculture industry needs the labor, because Americans won’t do the work. The average wage for Agriculture in Florida is about 9-dollars an hour. That’s a little less than 19-thousand dollars a year.

But those low wages are why  John Oliver says no to immigration reform. He says using immigrant labor depresses earnings. He cites his own experience as an example: Oliver’s brother in-law is an engineer, and Oliver says his brother has seen big changes in that industry.

“Engineers used to make about $70,000 a year. He’s telling me now these kids are lucky if they get a job or $18/hour. with no benefits because we’re importing engineers on a sub-contractor basis, they get no benefits, and these engineers are willing to work for about $40,000 a year.”

While economic forces are a major player in the immigration debate, so are political ones. Many undocumented immigrants work in agriculture and the state’s largest industry, tourism. Hispanic and Latino voters are a growing voting bloc in places like Florida, and they’re voting increasingly democratic. Rich Templin with the Florida AFLCIO says that’s put Florida a key swing state, in the spotlight again, and raised the stakes for its only Republican U.S. Senator, Marco Rubio.

“If you look at the economics and demographics of Florida, it would be pure folly to stand in the way of this comprehensive solution," said Templin.

While Rubio has been actively working in Congress on the immigration bill, Governor Rick Scott has been relatively mum. Scott campaigned in 2010 on a platform largely tied to bringing tough immigration laws to Florida. But after the defeat of an immigration bill in the 2011 legislature, he’s been largely silent on the issue of immigration—until he vetoed a bill that would have given temporary driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The measure received overwhelming support by the legislature. Some of Scott’s supporters, like Floridians for Immigration Enforcement Jack Oliver, are suspicious of what the governor is doing:

“I think this was political posturing. Rick Scott is just another Republi-Con that conned the citizens of Florida that he was going to be serious about addressing the illegal immigration problem in Florida when he had no intention of doing so. No his election is coming up and he wants to put the perception out there that he’s a tough guy when he really isn’t.”    

And Oliver is also leery of Rubio, who he accuses of backing down on a promise to oppose what he sees as amnesty. Both Scott and Rubio are on a political tightrope, trying to appeal to and appease multiple constituencies at once. And that’s reflective of the larger immigration debate. In the end, not everyone will get what they want. But both sides are hoping to settle the immigration issue soon.