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People are still fleeing Florida weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ strict new immigration law — one of the main selling points from his presidential campaign — struck fear across various immigrant communities across the state.

A new lawsuit aims to ease the exodus but people in these communities say the emotional and financial damage to individuals and families has already been done.

The Farm Worker Association of Florida, a nonprofit labor group representing nearly 12,000 members, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to block SB1718 — the state’s law targeting undocumented immigrants, which went into effect July 1. The community-based group is backed by major legal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Southern Poverty Law Center.

But one college-bound student in Palm Beach County says the law had already forced her immigrant family and relatives to go north, splitting her household apart.

“You know it’s sad to see because this is the state where I was born. This is a state where I’ve seen everything. Where I’ve seen my family grow, seen families and friends grow,” said Sarai Umansor Morales, who is entering her senior year of high school. “So just seeing how so many people are impacted, it just angers me.”

Morales is the kind of high-achieving American kid most immigrant parents dream of. The high school junior is part of Path to College, the popular college readiness program in Palm Beach County. Name any other educational activity, the aspiring business professional is probably involved in it.

But the law, she said, has changed her family dynamics and her aspirations for a career in the county. She said her Salvadorian parents rushed to sell their landscaping business a month before SB1718 took effect. Her father saw no other choice but to uproot their family to North Carolina while she stays back with her grandmother until she gets accepted into college.

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They’re optimistic but still worry there’s no guarantee that they will live how they once did.

“And I know family members who have left over there and are still looking for jobs,” Morales said. “Even people who are not being impacted directly are going to be impacted in the end.”

SB1718 requires more stringent criteria for employers, invalidates out-of-state ID cards like driver’s licenses, and requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask each patient about their immigration status and report the data to the state — a question patients can decline.

Morales has a sister with disabilities. Their stay-at-home mom, a resident, takes on the brunt of the caretaking responsibilities. Their father, the breadwinner, has been in Florida for more than 20 years and even though he doesn’t have all of his documents, he supports his entire family.

Morales said she is in a mixed-status home full of financial worries, medical stress and a growing fear of driving.

“And so my dad is the only one who’s providing for all of us. And so the fact that he’s actually the one that’s going to be the most affected just makes it even scarier for all of us,” she said. “What would happen to us if something happens to him?”

People carry signs that read in Spanish, "Justice for Immigrants" and "We are humans" as hundreds gather to protest peacefully against Florida Senate bill 1718, which imposes restrictions on undocumented immigrants, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Immokalee, Fla., an area known for its tomato-growing. Across Florida Thursday, workers didn't show up at construction sites, and tomato fields, while scores of restaurants and small businesses never opened their doors to protest the new state law.

People carry signs that read in Spanish, “Justice for Immigrants” and “We are humans” as hundreds gather to protest peacefully against Florida Senate bill 1718, which imposes restrictions on undocumented immigrants, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Immokalee, Fla., an area known for its tomato-growing. Across Florida Thursday, workers didn’t show up at construction sites, and tomato fields, while scores of restaurants and small businesses never opened their doors to protest the new state law.

The new law says it is now illegal to transport an undocumented person across state lines into Florida. It was a provision that was changed after it initially criminalized the transportation of undocumented people within the state.

And that’s when Morales’s family made their decision. She says no matter how many times state Republicans, such as Rick Roth, tries to clarify the law, it isn’t reducing the fear it was intended to evoke from people like her father.

Legal advocates in Florida are filing for what’s called a preliminary injunction, which asks the courts to halt the implementation and enforcement of the law during the court process.

If granted, it would put the immigration law on hold while the attorneys litigate the case, which could take months or years.

Challenging the law with a lawsuit

Paul Chávez, the senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said the move is about establishing consistent policy across state lines.

“The United States needs to speak with one voice when it comes to foreign relations,” Chávez told WLRN. “You can imagine the chaos that would ensue if all 50 states decided to adopt their own immigration policies. What to do. What not to do.”

The non-profit Farm Worker Association of Florida filed the lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox.

Chávez says the lawsuit specifically challenges the language in section 10 of the law, which criminalizes the transportation of a broad category of immigrants who enter the state of Florida without first being “inspected.”

Paul Chávez, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC

In a statement to WLRN, DeSantis’ press secretary lambasted the lawsuit, calling it “abhorrent” and characterizing the ACLU as “leftist cronies.” It read, in part, “in Florida, we will continue to fight illegal immigration and the evil predations of human smuggling.”

But Chávez, a Civil Rights Attorney, said human smuggling is already a crime under the federal government.

“There’s so many ways to support nonprofits that work day and night on addressing human smuggling. So many ways to address police enforcement of it. What they did has nothing to do with actual human smuggling,” Chávez said. “It has everything to do with being cruel to the immigrant community in an attempt to disincentive their migration.”

The inability to move around freely across state lines without the fear of being stopped by federal authorities is what’s paralyzing Morales’s family, especially her father. It’s a concern that simply won’t go away. So they’re leaving. For good.

“Worst case scenario, what if something happens to him while he’s driving,” Morales said. “We might not even see him again.”

Immigration lawyers told WLRN they will file a motion for a preliminary injunction on Aug. 7.

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