Tough choices Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

Immigration has always been a front-burner issue in Florida, but the debate got hotter this election season when billionaire gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott said the state needed a tougher, Arizona-style immigration policy that would, among other things, force state law enforcement officials to police undocumented individuals.

A recent national CNN poll indicated the vast majority (70 percent) of Hispanics believe that the Arizona law will lead to increased discrimination against Hispanics. And while the law is unpopular among Hispanics in South Florida, Scott, who beat a Republican establishment candidate to win his party’s primary in August, has developed a niche of supporters among affluent Hispanic business leaders, many of whom benefited from the more liberal immigration policies of the past.

Immigration is not an easy issue to discuss in Florida, and this election year, it’s become nearly impossible to have a passionate debate on the topic. That’s because while many business leaders here publicly back a hard-line stance on border security and undocumented workers, privately, they are much less sanguine because of how dependent the local economy and many of their businesses are on immigrant labor.

Yes, it’s well known that undocumented workers ply our fields, but they also play an important role in the landscaping and construction business of South Florida. So prevalent is the use of cheap undocumented laborers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials regularly raid job sites throughout the area — efforts that have increased significantly during that last two years, according to the business owners and immigration attorneys with whom I spoke.

Unskilled laborers are the more familiar face of immigration in the nation, but there’s another side that’s all too common: foreign, skilled laborers who overstay tourist or business visas and obtain work, pay taxes and live normal lives here. By some U.S. government estimates, those workers account for 45 percent of the foreign undocumented population in the country.

“The majority of people who come through my office seeking help are middle-class; more than half of which are college-educated, working people who have overstayed their visas,” says James P. Gagel, an immigration attorney based in Coral Gables.

Gagel says that Florida already has tough laws against undocumented workers and that South Florida police routinely enforce those laws, though they are not mandated to do so.

“I have many clients who have been stopped for traffic infractions, and the next thing they know, they’re in a federal detention center,” Gagel says.

In early August, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, in an attempt to shore up his tough-on-crime credentials in his political race against Scott, introduced several immigration enforcement policies that mimicked what Arizona had already put into law. A majority of Florida voters rejected McCollum at the polls.

Now, Scott faces Democrat challenger Alex Sink, a former banker and currently Florida’s chief financial officer. For either to prevail in the November election, they will need to court Hispanic voters and especially tap the wealthy ones who can contribute to their campaigns. At least one businessman — a Scott supporter in the primaries — whom I met at an August Latin American Business Association meeting said he’s open to listening to Sink.

“Personally, I know that Scott would be good for me and my business, but Alex [Sink] has been good for the state. We’ll see.”

William Plasencia is a longtime business journalist and communications and media consultant based in Miami. Find out more about Will on his website: