A Homestead open-air strip mall of mostly family-owned Hispanic businesses is usually packed in the afternoon with people eating at restaurants, buying medication at a pharmacy or transferring money to their loved ones in Latin America.
These South Florida businesses are credited with keeping retail in downtown Homestead alive as more and more businesses congregate around the big box stores along US 1 and further east.
But on Thursday afternoon the Pioneer Mall, 224 Washington Ave., appeared to be a ghost town with nearly all of its restaurants and stores closed. Mexican restaurants, taquerías and a bakery also shut down in neighboring Florida City. Flyers posted on the businesses’ doors and windows alerted clients that they were shutting down June 1 in support of the immigrant community — the target of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ immigration crackdown.
In the evening, around 500 people marched in downtown Homestead, waving flags from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States and chanting in Spanish: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Similar scenes were reported across the Sunshine State, from the farmworker town of Immokalee and the hurricane-stricken city of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida to Jacksonville and Orlando, in what many people called “un día sin inmigrantes” — a day without immigrants.
In Homestead, the agricultural center of South Florida, numerous workers went on strike, boycotted area businesses and called their state elected officials. In Immokalee, one of the major centers of tomato growing in the United States,hundreds marched waving Mexican and American flags while chanting in Spanish “sí se puede,” which roughly translates to “yes we can.”
Last month, DeSantis signed a bill into law that limits undocumented migrant labor, ends community-funded programs that give undocumented immigrants identification cards and toughens penalties against those who transport undocumented immigrants into the state.
Florida’s law requires that hospitals track and report the immigration status of patients, that local governments withhold services from people who cannot provide proof of citizenship and that all employers with 25 or more employees verify the immigration status of most workers using the federal electronic system, E-Verify. Although most of the provisions in the law will take effect July 1, the employer penalties do not take effect until July 1, 2024.
‘I don’t think we are doing anything wrong’
Alberto Valle, 38, told the Miami Herald that he and 14 other employees of a landscaping company didn’t go to work on Thursday. The father of five and Homestead resident made the difficult decision of losing a day’s salary even though he sends money to his wife and kids in Guatemala so they can buy groceries, clothes and medicine. He went to Pioneer Mall to eat after finding out that a nearby Mexican restaurant was closed but found only shuttered doors.
“I was surprised to see so many businesses closed and at the same time it motivated me to see how many people are supporting this,” he said.
Valle said his main concern is losing his landscaping job — his family’s main income.
“I don’t thing we are doing anything wrong,” he said. “We only look to progress and support our families.”
Governor’s office responds
Jeremy T. Redfern, press secretary for Gov. Desantis’ office, told the Herald in an email Thursday that the law “counteracts the effects of illegal immigration on Florida, a problem willfully enabled by the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure our nation’s southern border.”
“The media has been deliberately inaccurate about this distinction between legal and illegal immigration to create this very sort of outrage based on a false premise,” he said. “Any business that exploits this crisis by employing illegal aliens instead of Floridians will be held accountable.”
Calling elected officials
A few minutes away from the mall, Elcira Morales, 28, stayed home to call state elected officials to demand they repeal or make major changes to the immigration law. The mother of two cradled her 4-month-old baby and her 2-year-old daughter in her lap during calls. On her dining table was a flyer prepared by the Farmworker Association of Florida, a grassroots, non-profit, farmworker 10,000-member organization, which had the names of the elected officials she was calling and their office phone numbers.
“I vote, and things like this won’t [keep] her in office,” Morales told an assistant of Republican state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
“He is breaking up families and creating fear in our communities,” she said in a voicemail left for Republican state Rep. Juan Carlos Porras.
Born and raised in the Homestead area, Morales, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrant parents, told the Herald the law may affect her even though she is a U.S. citizen because, she says, the law may encourage police to stop drivers based on the color of their skin.
“If you look Mexican, they [police] are going to have the green light to stop you,” she said.
A ‘sacrifice’ they are willing to make
Mainor Morales, 23, a Homestead construction worker, told the Herald on Thursday night after the march that he is also concerned about being deported — potentially leaving behind his partner and their 1-year-old baby. About a month ago, he said, a man robbed him of his passport and rent money at gunpoint in the Homestead area, and he decided not to call police out of fear of being deported.
“I feel sad,” he said in Spanish. “I worry about my family and my son.”
Mercedes Diaz, 38, has been living in Homestead for 20 years. The mother of three children ages 5, 8 and 12, told the Herald she and around 15 other employees of her husband’s landscaping company decided to strike.
Diaz’ husband, Hector Gomez, 38, of Guatemala, said the financial sacrifice from the strike was worth it. In spite of their fears, the Gomez-Diaz family and most marchers seemed full of energy, firm in their beliefs and were seen smiling and some even danced.
“We decided to close even if that means a considerable loss,” he said in Spanish. “I prefer to sacrifice myself a little now to make a difference tomorrow.”
(Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report)