MIAMI — On a steamy summer day in Miami, flea market produce vendor Bessy Hernandez is doing her best to drum up sales.
“Aguacate, aguacate de Florida!” the 73-year old Honduran native yells of her avocado selection, which is part of a much larger array of colorful inventory.
For decades, vendors at the Tropicana Flea Market have worked weekends under the hot sun, listening to music, trading jokes and light-hearted stories.
But lately, those stories have taken a grim turn, largely thanks to a new Florida immigration law.
The law ramps up demands for employers and workers to meet new sweeping requirements, including the employer submission of worker information to verify their legal status.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis now faces some reports of an exodus of Latinos from the state.
And despite his defense of the law, there are worries it could trigger a catastrophic blow to the state’s economy.
Many Republicans are bracing for that potential impact. They worry the law goes too far and say it could ultimately hurt DeSantis and other down ballot GOP candidates in the 2024 election cycle.
‘Unnecessary and disruptive’
Hernandez, who’s been running her produce stand for 27 years, says as Latinos leave the state due to the law, she’s losing her customer base of ‘humble workers’ like her.
“No millionaire is coming to a flea market,” Hernandez said in her native Spanish.
Her sales have dropped 40 percent in a two-month period, starting just before the law took effect on July 1.
In all, Hernandez knows 30 Floridians who have moved to other states, including the Carolinas, Connecticut and New York.
It’s a story that’s grown all too common for a state economy that’s highly reliant on migrant workers for its tourism, agriculture and construction industries.
“Even a lot of Republican business owners are worried and complaining about this law because they view it as unnecessary and disruptive,” former Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo told NPR from a recent National Association of Hispanic Journalism conference in Miami.
Curbelo and other Republicans argue the law could hurt the DeSantis campaign and down ballot Republicans who would be tied to him as the law’s impact continues to play out.
“This is another issue where the Republican candidates try to flex in the primaries, try to prove their conservative credentials, but end up doing damage to themselves in general elections,” he said.
Florida GOP congressmen blame President Biden
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups sued the state over the new stringent requirements on behalf of farmworkers.
The law, known as Florida Senate Bill 1718, specifically requires employers to submit worker information through an E-Verify system to verify their employees’ work status. It also ramps up criminal penalties for workers who violate the new law.
“Admittedly designed to inflict cruelty, SB 1718 is unconstitutional and undermines our democracy,” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Paul R. Chavez said in a statement.
And while anecdotal evidence of Latinos leaving Florida is growing, experts say it will take time to see the depths of its impact.
On Capitol Hill, Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the dean of his state’s congressional delegation, blames the Biden administration for the new law.
“Whatever states are doing is just a sign of how bad and how desperate and how catastrophic the administration has been dealing with or has not been dealing with the issue of border security,” he told NPR.
That’s a similar sentiment shared by his colleague, Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Giménez. Both warned that they are not totally versed in all of the law’s new requirements.
However, Giménez adds that the new law could be part of a series of past overreactions in state regulations.
“The problem is, sometimes when you react to something, is that the pendulum swings the other way and may swing way too much,” Giménez said.
“So I understand why the state may take the measures that it takes to combat what they see is as a problem,” he explained. “Maybe some states have gone a little too far. But I have faith that it will come back to equilibrium.”
But those politics are pretty far removed from the Tropicana Flea Market in Miami.
“So we’re struggling because we have to pay the rent and everything,” says Danny Pereda, a watch repairman with a stand at the flea market.
Vendors here still face overhead costs even without money coming in. For example, Pereda is now splitting his booth with another vendor to cover his rent of $266 due every weekend.
With the summer’s extreme heat driving away even more customers, Pereda says the new immigration law could be a death knell.
“Because immigration people are leaving, it’s hurting our sales too, that’s why it’s empty,” he says, pointing to the empty space around his booth once bustling with customers.
As a result, Pereda’s business sales are down 80 to 90 percent.
Some Florida Republicans have gone as far as discrediting the law, saying it has no teeth and should not scare migrants away.
But time will tell what impact it could have on the state’s economy and population — a pretty important metric for a pretty important political and economic powerhouse.