Florida's Immigration Policy Disrupts Construction Sector

Reports from Florida find that immigrant construction workers have stopped showing up for work, so who’s going to replace them?

CBS News Miami reports a sudden shortage of construction labor in South Florida, and the cause is no mystery: “Labor workers are becoming more and more scared by the day,” and are not showing up to work. That’s because Florida’s GOP supermajority just passed an anti-immigrant law, SB 1718, which takes effect July 1 and is meant to strike terror into both undocumented immigrants and those who employ them.


More of Florida's construction sites will soon look like this thanks to the State's extreme immigration law.

According to The Florida Policy Institute, this bill is a nightmare: “Kentucky considered similar legislation, SB 6B, in 2011. Its Legislative Research Commission determined the fiscal impacts were vast and unquantifiable; the bill ultimately died.”

The new Florida law includes a fine of $10,000 per day per undocumented worker, and construction firms can lose their licenses. It has many other threatening features I won’t go in to here. Workers told reporters many of their fellow workers have already moved on to other states. They say “they’re being threatened daily, treated like delinquents”' on job sites.

Another report from TikTok showed video of sites in Miami that look abandoned. On one site that would normally have 100 workers, only 20 showed up. At other sites no workers at all showed up.


It’s not just Disney. Construction plays a massive role in Florida’s economic prosperity, even more so than the tourist economy of leisure and entertainment. Source: https://coss.fsu.edu/economics/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2022/01/FLEcon.pdf

A Big Huh?

But wait a minute. We’re frequently reminded that Florida is “open for business,” a phrase coined by another controversial Florida governor (now Senator) Rick Scott. On the surface, things look good. The State started the year as one of the hottest places in the country for new construction, with more than 160,000 housing starts in 2022.

But 30 percent of the construction force in Florida are not U.S. born, and many are undocumented. Roughly 75 percent of them are from Latin America. These are hard-working, essential workers, who do the heavy lifting of the industry, quite literally. They include skilled and semi-skilled trade work for tens of thousands of new homes, including tile laying, roofing, framing, and more.

But work is stopping. And the reality of the situation appears to be dawning on everyone except, apparently, the people doubling down on regressive policies and rules. What’s the end game?

Theories abound.

The most common, voiced by television commentators such as Nina Turner, is that DeSantis is “willing to bankrupt the State, and put it into absolute disarray” in his blindly ambitious effort to grab the U.S. presidency. That still doesn’t explain why the GOP supermajority would willingly go along with what what appear to be economic suicide missions. Do they know something we don’t?

You’ve probably heard the term “grievance politics.” Florida is a test study in grievance, as a populist path to power. As the Florida Times-Union points out, "Open for business" now might as well come with an asterisk, a pledge of allegiance to the Divided State of Ron DeSantis.” Many of the policies now being actualized have been on the GOP wish list since the New Deal. It’s what columnist Thom Hartmann calls “a coalition of grievances.”

As the Times points out, Florida may tax businesses less aggressively, but it already lags behind many other states in terms of business metrics. And top-down rule changes and threats from politicians keep coming. 

The legislature's recent  “accomplishments” include targeting Chinese investors, making  life miserable for trans and gay citizens and bullying Disney to the point that the State’s fourth-largest employer has sued DeSantis for using his office to carry out a politically motivated harassment campaign.

The Guv’s Escape Plan?

So here we are. DeSantis will no doubt sign SB 1718 into law, and the immigrants will head for other States. Who will build (or even finish) the housing for the next batch of snowbirds moving to DeSantisland?

Perhaps the most befuddling question in all of this is: What do these legislators think is going to happen when all of their grievances are regulated into a top-down, overbearing government that questions every business decision? When you scare away workers, artists, women young enough to have children, entertainment companies, teachers, intellectuals, and developers, things get pretty quiet.

One of what I would describe as “false populism” talking points emerging from a few on the right is that cracking down on immigrants will actually protect them from slave-like labor conditions. They’re not wrong that such underpaid conditions are common in the industry. I’ve had builders tell me first hand that they would not be in business without $10-an-hour tile setters.

Typically the builder is one step removed, and not directly culpable. He hires an immigrant-owned company and doesn’t ask questions about what those laborers are paid. That doesn’t mean it’s an ethical choice. But is that really what’s motivating GOP policies? There’s little evidence to support any real concern for U.S. workers, or any support to help them step into immigrant jobs and make a living wage.

Is Child Labor Florida’s Not-So-Secret Solution?

Some other Florida-based shenanigans suggest that anti-immigration politicians may think they can refill the immigrant labor black hole with low-paid juvenile workers.

According to The Washington Post, The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a right-wing think tank, has been working with its lobbying section, the Opportunity Solutions Project, to roll back child labor laws in multiple States, including Arkansas, Iowa, and now Florida. 

Among the Victorian-era law changes being considered is one that allows companies to pay kids of any age to work doing hard labor for $4.25 per hour for 6 months of each year. The current law allows up to 90 days of this “training wage,” but some want to extend it to 180 days. 

At present, only kids aged 16 or 17 can work in the hazardous field of construction. But Minnesota just rolled back that age limitation, and Florida is likely to follow a similar playbook. The State typically employs up to 200,000 migrant workers each year. But the new law makes it a major crime just to help them get there. The Florida Policy Institute notes that:

“Anyone who transports (e.g., drives) one of these undocumented migrant workers into Florida — like a family member, friend, employer, or coworker — could be subject to a third degree felony.”

There are 1.2 million kids in Florida. That’s a lot of potential low-paid labor that’s going to be desperately needed. 

But maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe the child labor push and immigrant crackdown are unrelated. The only person who knows the whole plan is Ron DeSantis, and he’s playing the legislature like a violin. 

The fantasy playing out in his mind is that he will use Florida as his launchpad to the White House, firing his afterburners as he goes, leaving the State as a smoking ruin, and never looking back. Maybe the power-drunk legislators are just too numb to realize they’re not going with him. They’re playing Mike Pence to a half-baked Trump impersonation by DeSantis.

In the end, Florida, and most of the people in it, will continue down an ever deepening economic sinkhole. And it’s all avoidable.