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Anguish and fear in Florida amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment

Manuel Vazquez, owner of Coya's artisan ice cream, poses for a photo as he carries a tray of ice pops in the kitchen of his shop in Fort Myers, Fla.
Marco Bello for NPR
Manuel Vazquez, owner of Coya's artisan ice cream, poses for a photo as he carries a tray of ice pops in the kitchen of his shop in Fort Myers, Fla.

Updated April 25, 2024 at 12:06 PM ET

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Manuel Vasquez says he remembers when people started to leave. When one by one, people in this community started vanishing.

It began about a year ago, in May 2023, when a new law was signed into law by Governor — and then presidential candidate — Ron DeSantis.

It's considered one of the toughest immigration laws in the country.

Among other things, SB 1718 penalizes employers from using undocumented labor, prohibits undocumented people from having driver's licenses, and defines giving an undocumented person a ride into the state of Florida as human smuggling. It also requires hospitals to include questions about immigration status.

The result has been a flight of immigrants leaving the state. And many who stayed behind say it has led to a terrifying rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Florida has for decades been synonymous with Latin American immigration. Around 1 out of 5 people in Florida is foreign-born. Close to 1 million are undocumented.

Vasquez, who owns an ice cream parlor, says most of his customers are immigrants, and many of them panicked when this law was passed.

"They were uncertain about what would happen next. They had no choice but to drive to work and were worried. 'What if I don't make it back home?' They'd say, 'What happens to my family, my children?' "

Vazquez, right, and an employee cut tomatoes in the kitchen of his shop.
/ Marco Bello for NPR
/
Marco Bello for NPR
Vazquez, right, and an employee cut tomatoes in the kitchen of his shop.

He estimates that about 30 percent of his customers left, mostly to the Carolinas, Georgia or other nearby states. And it has dealt a blow to his business. "It was a like a second pandemic."

According to a recent Gallup Poll, half of Americans see undocumented immigration as a threat.

And, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been on the rise.

These days you can tune into a political speech on almost any level, and hear immigrants described as criminals and drug smugglers.

One study by Stanford University found that in recent decades, Republicans have become far more likely to use dehumanizing terms to describe immigrants. NPR reached out to the Republican National Committee and received no response.

The study also found a "striking similarity between how Mexican immigrants are framed today and how Chinese immigrants were framed during the era of Chinese exclusion in the late 19th century."

Vasquez, who is originally from Mexico, sees the anti-immigrant sentiment as anti-Latino. He's been in the U.S. for around 20 years and says he's seen it evolve: he feels it's become almost obligatory for presidential hopefuls to target Hispanics.

Misinformation about the border and immigration has indeed become a centerpiece in this election year. Immigrants being presented as a threat by politicians at all levels makes for dramatic headlines almost every day.

On a local level, states like Texas and Florida have been butting heads with the Federal government, accusing the Biden administration of inaction, saying they have no choice but to pass their own immigration legislation.

A spokesperson for Florida Governor DeSantis told NPR that the governor signed thelaw "to protect Floridians."

But at a local farmer's market, Ana Maria Perez, a fruit saleswoman, says she's cautious about driving around, even though she's a permanent resident. "If you have dark skin," Perez says, "the police here stop you for any reason."

Perez says she has a son in college, here in Florida. But when he graduates, in a year, she and her husband want to go north.

Not everyone in Fort Myers is anti-immigrant, she clarifies. But she says the racism has intensified here. "I feel like.... something has been awakened," she says. "A monster that was asleep."

It's hard to say how many undocumented immigrants left Florida after SB 1718 passed. Most people NPR spoke to in and around Fort Myers said leaving the state, or planning to, is an everyday discussion.

"People call it a ghost town now," says a woman named Mari.

A woman who drives migrants across the country poses for a portrait in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
/ Marco Bello for NPR
/
Marco Bello for NPR
A woman who drives migrants across the country poses for a portrait in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.

NPR is withholding Mari's last name because she is worried about retaliation: she drives immigrants around town, and out of Florida. There's a reason for this: under Florida's law undocumented immigrants can't drive.So, an informal transportation system boomed.

It's called Raites. As in, rides.

Mari, who is a permanent resident, is a raitera. For half the price of an Uber or Lyft, she takes kids to school, in her minivan, when their undocumented parents fear leaving the house. She takes people to work. She even gets groceries for families.

She also drives immigrants who want to get out of Florida to other states. Mostly north. She says she does those drives overnight because she is scared of being stopped by the police.

In one sleepy strip mall in Fort Myers, flyers and cards advertising raitero services are everywhere.

The mall is pretty empty, and it's hard not to notice the parked white car covered in Make America Great Again and Donald Trump decals.

It belongs to the owner of the mall's ice cream shop, Thomas Haueter. "I was never really into politics," he says. "But I really like Trump."

Haueter is a citizen of Switzerland and the U.S. He's been here for nearly 40 years. I ask him what he thinks about the fact that his store is in an immigrant neighborhood — and his presidential candidate is promising mass deportations.

He hesitates. "Ahhh... I don't know how that's going to be. You know, certainly criminal people with a recorded, they need to go. I think the first thing is secure that border and then let's decide what to do with the people all here."

Ramiro Ruiz, chef and owner of 2 Sabores Mexican restaurant, poses for a photo with his wife at their restaurant in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
/ Marco Bello for NPR
/
Marco Bello for NPR
Ramiro Ruiz, chef and owner of 2 Sabores Mexican restaurant, poses for a photo with his wife at their restaurant in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.

But for many here, there isn't time to wait and see.

Two stores over, at a Mexican restaurant, owner Ramiro Ruiz recalls a woman who came in a few months ago. She was selling her house for a third of its value. She was desperate to get out of Florida.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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