When Hurricane Idalia struck last week, Michael Burnett’s bayside home in Crystal River, Florida, was inundated with a noxious cocktail of stormwater and sewage from burst pipes that rose to his chest.
“We lost everything we owned,” said Burnett, the manager of a gun shop. “The only saving grace was those guys who came to my house.”
The “guys” are four men in the country illegally that he had hired to help sort through the muck, members of an immigrant workforce that in recent years has helped communities in Florida and other states clean up and rebuild after climate disasters, with thousands of such workers rushing in.
But as this year’s hurricane season intensifies, they may be in shorter supply in Florida.
In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law to discourage immigrants without legal status from living and working in the state. The law, which he has described as the country’s most aggressive crackdown, rejects out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to immigrants who entered the country illegally, makes it a felony to transport such immigrants into Florida and punishes companies that hire them.
“There’s a lot of work, but we can’t risk being deported,” said Maria, a Honduran immigrant in Louisiana who worked in Florida after Hurricane Ian last year but said she would forgo traveling there to help with storm cleanup from now on. “We’re staying put.”
Like other immigrants interviewed for this article, she asked to be identified only by her first name out of concern for her family’s safety.
After the Florida Legislature passed the measure, but even before it took effect on July 1, Maria and other immigrants said they had been harassed by police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the state. Now, they expressed fear that law enforcement would arrest them and turn them over to federal authorities for detention and deportation.
The office of DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Though it is impossible to know for certain how many immigrants without legal status are staying away, more than half of 1,000 who were informally polled this summer by Resilience Force, a nonprofit group that organizes disaster recovery workers and offers them safety training, said they did not plan to return to Florida this hurricane season because of the law.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.