Immigrants are a vital part of Florida and Miami-Dade County’s social and economic fabric, and local communities and governments should support and foster their development and contributions, a group of business owners, county officials, social service providers, and community leaders said Tuesday.
“Let’s embrace our new neighbors as assets. We’re going to uplift their talents, and we’re going to pave the way for a more inclusive and prosperous Miami-Dade County,” Vanessa Joseph, attorney at Catholic Legal Services and elected clerk of the City of North Miami, said at the Miami Opportunity Summit.
The conference held in downtown Miami brought together public and private sector leaders in conversations about the county’s immigrant communities as well as to help resolve job vacancies across Florida and the U.S., organizers said. For every 100 open jobs in Florida, there are 57 available workers to fill the positions, according to data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The event also comes seven weeks after a state immigration law that cracks down on undocumented labor went into effect. Business owners and immigration advocates have said the legislation has stoked panic even among immigrants with lawful status and exacerbated work shortages across several industries. The law was a focus of the summit’s discussions. .
“What we are doing as a state is turning people back, and we are all going to pay the consequences,” said Samuel Vilchez, Florida State Director for the American Business Immigration Coalition.
The bipartisan group focused on pro-immigration business policies and Miami-based service provider Catholic Legal Services hosted the conference. Representatives and leaders from faith-based organizations, nonprofit groups, service providers, business owners and local and county governments attended the summit. Several of the speakers were immigrants or had been formerly undocumented.
Participants of the keynote panel — focused on reframing public narratives of new immigrant arrivals to South Florida— included Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Beacon Council CEO Rodrick Miller and Miami businessman Miguel Fernandez. CBS4 anchor Eliott Rodriguez moderated the conversation.
The panelists kicked off the conversation by sharing stories about their own immigrant background. The mayor spoke of how her great-great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, escaping the violence Jewish communities faced in the region. She emphasized Miami’s historical role as a place that receives immigrants and refugees seeking a better life in the United States.
“We understand their suffering and respond with compassion, because we know that when people are given a second chance at life, they give it their all to succeed, build a legacy for their families and contribute to their community,” said Levine Cava.
Archbishop Wenski echoed the mayor’s words.
“We are a dynamic, prosperous and resilient community here in South Florida not in spite of immigration but because of it,” he said
Mike Fernandez, the Cuba-born chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners, a private investment firm focused on healthcare services, described immigrants as risk takers willing to take on new ventures and challenges.
“Immigrants leave their home, their land, their friends, language, money. They leave everything behind in order to have a better future. And in that process, they’re willing to do the work that many of us are not willing to do,” said Fernandez, “Immigrants are go-getters. They build companies and they build communities.”
The conversation quickly turned to the new state law, which requires companies with 25 or more employees to check through a federal platform whether their new workers are able to legally work. Starting in July 2024, daily fines of $1,000 for businesses that don’t comply with using E-verify will come into effect. Employers could also see their licenses suspended “after multiple findings of noncompliance,” according to the law.
When asked about the legislation, economist Rodrick Miller, who heads the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, said he has been hearing stories of people leaving the state over fears surrounding the law.
“A failure to aggressively confront this could have, will have, a negative reverberating impact on our economy,” said Miller. “Huge segments of our economy are built around things such as hospitality, construction, and agriculture, and have an outsize number of immigrants working in them.”
Levine Cava condemned the legislation, describing the law as punitive and lacking in common sense. She said the county continues providing essential services to new arrivals through its collaborations with local organizations, the federal government and the local school and healthcare systems.
“We work as best we can to help people recognize that we’re here for them, we support them, we want them to be legal, we don’t want them to to operate under the radar. And we will do everything in our power to petition the government and our elected officials to support us,” she said.
In a separate panel, Hector Mujica, the Venezuelan-born head of Economic Opportunity for the Americas at Google, and Jeff Lozama, CEO of Miami-based construction company CMS group, highlighted the negative consequences of labor shortages in the U.S. and the economic contributions of immigrants in the United States.
Immigrants contributed nearly $104 billion to Miami-Dade’s GDP, according to 2021 data from Miami-Dade County’s Office of New Americans. The agency also reported immigrants made up nearly 87% of both the essential manufacturing and agricultural industries, as well as over three quarters of all workers in essential services, construction and food manufacturing.
Lozama zeroed in on the substantial percentage of his industry that is made up of immigrants who work on a range of projects, from high-rise commercial buildings to affordable housing. He also said that they bring in skills from their own countries, citing Guatemalan craftsmen who work in carpentry and finish work. He added that immigrants end up establishing their own businesses that subcontract across the industry.
“There’s no way the construction industry can be at the state that it is right now without the contribution of the immigrant population,” he said.
During the summit’s lunch break, Oliver Gilbert, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, encouraged participants of the summit to push for public policy solutions and hold elected officials accountable. He called Miami-Dade an “economic anchor for the state of Florida” and said it was senseless that “the legislators we send to Tallahassee support legislation that would be disastrous for us.”
“We don’t have people to do the jobs. And we can’t replace the money that immigrants put into our economy,” he said. “The basic economics of this and the morality of this both lead you to the same point. The question is can we make them hear us? And that starts with us.”