MANATEE — Manatee County’s Hispanic activists say the new Arizona immigration law is another example of irrational fear guiding public policy.
And that fear has begun trickling down to Hispanics, the people who will be affected most if other states, like Florida, follow Arizona’s lead, they say.
“It’s all that everybody’s talking about,” Jim Delgado, a Manatee County attorney of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, said of fellow Hispanics. “It’s a mixture of despair and anger. They’re scared.”
The law, which makes it a misdemeanor to be in the United States without proper documents and allows law enforcement officers to stop anyone and demand proof of citizenship, was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last week.
The law has drawn fire from Hispanics and civil rights groups.
Lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of the law, and tourism boycotts have been threatened.
Fermin C. Miranda, board chairman of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce, said his group is closely watching how the Arizona law is accepted.
Miranda surveyed chamber members and associates, and 73.3 percent of respondents who had an opinion opposed the law. Half expected such a law to pass in Florida.
“We believe that this measure is ill-advised and overreaching,” Miranda said, “and will have a disproportionate and negative impact on the immigrant community — and Latin American immigrants especially, not to mention local businesses. ... We strongly oppose this measure and would hope that there would be no similar measures undertaken in the state of Florida.”
Manatee County’s congressman, though, doesn’t share that concern.
He said Arizona is doing what must be done to protect its border with Mexico.
“The state of Arizona is responding to the federal government’s failure to secure our borders and enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota. “Congress should reject amnesty and heed the American people’s call for border security and keeping terrorists, drug lords and illegal gang members out of the United States.”
Immigration is a hot topic in Manatee County, which is home to a growing Hispanic population that includes an estimated 18,000 seasonal farmworkers who help plant, harvest and pack citrus, tomato and vegetable crops.
Bob Spencer, vice president of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, said he can see both sides of the issue. His company employs thousands of migrant workers at farms in Florida and California. He said about 1,000 workers are in Manatee County preparing for the upcoming tomato harvest.
West Coast Tomato obtains visas for foreign citizens who can prove they are eligible to work here.
“We obviously have a lot of migrant workers in our fields, but we understand that first and foremost there needs to be a system in place to protect our borders,” Spencer said.
“There is a need for workers to do the work, but there needs to be a way they can get legal status without citizenship.”
Although Congress unveiled an immigration reform proposal on Thursday, Spencer doubts any real change will be forthcoming during a mid-term election year.
“I don’t seem them doing anything that controversial,” Spencer said.
Chuck Hautot works with farmworkers at Taylor & Fulton Farms in Palmetto, which employs between 200 and 300 migrants during the tomato packing season. He said the immigration law is not yet a major topic of conversation in the fields.
“We just work every day,” Hautot said. “I’m sure it would frighten some of the people. If you were in their shoes, you’d be scared, too.”
In Florida, local law enforcement officials turn over suspected illegal immigration cases to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
About a year ago, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office abandoned its participation in the 287(g) program, which featured trained deputies identifying criminal and illegal aliens at the Manatee County jail and initiating removal proceedings.
“It just got to be too much,” sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow said. “We just couldn’t do that anymore.”
Now, the sheriff’s office participates in ICE’s Secure Communities, an information-sharing process that allows ICE to check local arrest reports for potential illegal immigrants but does not require local manpower.
Bristow declined to offer an opinion about the Arizona law, but said illegal immigrants create a drain on resources.
“We deal with the people who are here illegally and committing crime,” Bristow said. “It costs us money to arrest these people and investigate these crimes.”
Luz Corcuera is the program director for Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County, which educates farmworkers and other families about the care of infants and young children. She said the Arizona law is part of the “vitriolic and hateful dialogue” that attends immigration discussions.
“We love to use fear for everything,” Corcuera said. “It’s so sad we’ve gotten to that point. ... I don’t understand what criteria they’re going to use to pinpoint who is undocumented and who is not.”
She said Hispanics often receive criticism for not learning English and refusing to assimilate into society. But immigration laws like the one passed in Arizona discourage integration, she said.
“How can they be integrated when they’re afraid?” Corcuera said.