’We’re all going to be affected.’ Bradenton leaders speak out on Florida immigration law
Leaders of local activist groups gathered downtown Friday to speak out against Florida’s new immigration law, which they said could have significant impacts on the Bradenton area.
The legislation, approved by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week, requires employers to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees, provides $12 million for a controversial immigrant relocation program, and prohibits undocumented residents from obtaining ID cards.
“In the beginning, everyone was welcomed, but now that we are coming in different colors, are we not welcome anymore?” said Manatee NAACP President Luther Wilkins, speaking before a crowd of about 40 people at the Manatee County Courthouse in downtown Bradenton.
Also at the press conference were leaders of the Hispanic community, local chapter of the Democratic Party, Manatee County Democratic Black Caucus, Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida and League of Women Voters of Manatee County.
“Tallahassee, we have to do better. Governor DeSantis, we’ve got to do better,” he added. “The NAACP stands with the brown and the Black. We stand against discrimination against all people and ask that you stand with us.”
In a Wednesday press conference, DeSantis said that the legislation is part of his ongoing battle with President Joe Biden over immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Obviously if we had a different administration it would be a lot easier to actually deal with the problem at its source,” said DeSantis, who is expected to officially announce his 2024 bid for president in the coming weeks.
Fernando Cevallos, vice president of the Manatee County Hispanic Caucus for the Democratic Party, spoke out about how the law could contribute to a shortage of workers in the local economy and job creation.
Bradenton Democrats oppose new immigration law
“Immigrants in general are far more entrepreneurial than the general population. They are job creators. Our conservative legislators use this language, job creators, so why do you oppose job creators?” Cevallos said. “It makes no sense.”
Speakers also said public health could see an impact if undocumented immigrants choose not to seek medical help for fear of being returned to their home country.
Under the new law, Florida hospitals that accept Medicaid are required to ask patients about their immigration status, which is then reported to the state Agency of Health Care Administration under DeSantis.
“I’m concerned about the bill when it comes to health care because if they’re not legal, they’re going to be scared to go to the hospital and get the care they need to avoid being questioned,” said Tracy Washington, second-vice president of the Manatee NAACP. “That’s going to result in more sick people in the county overall.”
César “CJ” Garcia, a Manatee County resident, entrepreneur and son of immigrant parents, says the Republican lawmakers’ actions are confusing because the party previously supported immigrants.
“If it wasn’t for President Reagan, he passed asylum and because of that, my father became a U.S. citizen. He had an opportunity. Now my father owns a very successful business. He pays taxes here in Manatee County, he raised his family in Manatee County,” said Garcia. “And if it wasn’t for that opportunity, that’s property taxes, business taxes, you don’t get over the years.”
“My father has contributed so much to the state and the country by being here, supporting it, and living his own version of the American dream,” he added. “What is criminal about that?”
In a 2020 report, the American Immigration Council estimated that immigrants — about 4.5 million people — make up 21% of Florida’s population.
“You have a problem when one of five people all of a sudden is targeted. Of that percentage, some are going to leave either out of fear or to avoid headaches,” Garcia said. “Immigrants are leaving the state and going somewhere else, taking their money, jobs, businesses and experiences. How is that benefiting Florida?”
Pedro Melendez, 76, of Bradenton, attended the protest and predicted that Manatee County residents will feel the impact of the immigration law.
“Most of the folks who are immigrants here are cooking your food in the restaurants, serving you, doing the lawn, cleaning your room in the hotel and cleaning the schools,” Melendez said. “They’re invisible to you, but if they get sick and can’t get to the doctor, we’re all going to be affected.”