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Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia’s Anti-Immigrant Bills Were Disasters – And Should Be A Warning To DeSantis and Florida Republicans (Again)

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking to boost his 2024 Republican presidential primary chances by enacting what’s been reported as “the toughest crackdown on undocumented immigration by any state in more than a decade.” His anti-immigrant proposals are as harsh as they are expansive, forcing hospitals to inquire into patients’ immigration status, eliminating the in-state tuition rates of undocumented students, and punishing Floridians with jail time for transporting an undocumented person to school, work, and even church

DeSantis thinks all this can benefit his political aspirations, but we know how this ends up for Florida, its economy, and its people. It’s totally predictable because it’s already happened before. Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia all learned the hard way that xenophobic legislation is both hateful and costly, leaving crops to rot in agriculture-rich regions, wiping out hundreds of millions of dollars in business and tourism revenue, and solidifying a reputation as an anti-immigrant bastion. 

Back in 2011, GOP lawmakers in Alabama modeled their proposal after the notorious “papers, please” law passed by former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and state Republicans the year prior. “Initially, HB 56 succeeded in driving undocumented immigrants out of the state in droves,” BuzzFeed News reported in 2014. Driving out, you know, the same laborers who feed us. The U.S.-born workers that the bill’s proponents fervently claimed would fill these jobs never showed, and those who did show up quit after hours on the job.

It was a similar story in Georgia, where the headlines following passage of the (again) Arizona-styled HB 87 said it all. ​​”Georgia Farmers Say Immigration Law Keeps Workers Away,” NPR reported in 2011. “Crackdown on illegal immigrants left crops rotting in Georgia fields, ag chief tells US lawmakers,” the Associated Press reported the same year. “The Law Of Unintended Consequences: Georgia’s Immigration Law Backfires,” Forbes said, also in 2011. That piece acknowledges a not-so-secret secret: undocumented workers are a part of the human engine that drives the agricultural industry. Push them out, and we all suffer.

Not to mention the international backlash and embarrassment tied to these kinds of bills. Following passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, Mexico in early 2010 issued a travel alert warning its citizens about visiting the state. “As long as no clear criteria are defined for when, where and who the authorities will inspect, it must be assumed that every Mexican citizen may be harassed and questioned without further cause at any time,” the Mexican government said at the time. Then-Governor Brewer embarrassed herself and the state when she was asked what an undocumented immigrant looks like, shortly after signing SB 1070 into law. She didn’t know, which basically means any person who isn’t white was at risk. (Take note Florida Republicans.)

Anti-immigrant laws like SB 1070 have also been cited as impetus for collective action and political change across several of these states. In 2020, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock became the first Democrats to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in two decades. Georgia also flipped blue in the 2020 presidential election, the first time since 1996. It was a similar story in Arizona, where the state also went for President Joe Biden, and is now represented by one Democrat in the U.S. Senate and one Senator who ran and won as a Democrat then later switched to Independent. While Alabama continues to trend red, it has not attempted HB 56-style legislation since its disastrous implementation more than a decade ago.

While Floridians have made clear in the past several weeks that their state should not follow in the path of Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, the ball is now in DeSantis’ court. He knows that even as he lured asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard as part of his 2024 aspirations, Florida businesses were actively trying to recruit them back to the state to help rebuild following Hurricane Ian. In fact, migrant workers have been so essential to disaster recovery, that a statue in New Orleans honors the Latino workers who helped rebuild the city following Hurricane Katrina.

But DeSantis doesn’t have to take it from us. He can listen to the words of Republican Adam Putnam, former Florida agricultural commissioner, U.S. representative and DeSantis’ 2018 primary opponent, who during a 2011 agricultural conference warned of the effects of the kinds of legislation that DeSantis is now trying to pass. It’s estimated that roughly half of the state’s 700,000 farmworkers lack legal immigration status.

Speaking at a citrus industry conference, Putnam said, ‘Thank God for Georgia and Alabama because they’ve given us examples of real-world consequences of these mistaken policies,’” America’s Voice noted at the time. “Putnam also said in regards to a potential enforcement-only immigration law in Florida, ‘There’s just no good news here…The best news would be if nothing happens…Because of the work done last year, I think this issue is taking a back seat in the Legislature, and I do not anticipate it taking such a large role next year.’” 

Much to the relief of immigrants, community leaders, businesses, farmers, and many others, all three of these odious laws were largely gutted by federal courts. Given the right-ward shift of the judiciary since the Trump years, Florida might not even have that backstop, something legislators, the Ag industry, and the building industry should be thinking long and hard about. In his effort to be attractive to Republican primary voters across the country, Florida’s Governor is leading the state down a self-destructive path.