- Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Immigration returned to the forefront of political discourse with the emergence of Donald Trump, who announced his bid for the presidency two years ago by saying he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico, which he accused of sending drugs and rapists into the U.S.
That wall has not yet materialized — Congress has so far refused to go along with funding for it — but the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld portions of President Trump’s travel ban, criticized by some as a discriminatory ban on Muslims.
And last week, the president and a pair of Republican members of the U.S. Senate touted a plan to dramatically alter the immigration system by slashing the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the country over the next decade.
Trump’s tough talk, the travel ban and recent legislation aimed at punishing cities that provide sanctuary to illegal or undocumented residents has, again, focused attention on an issue that has been held up as an example of American laxity, hypocrisy, cruelty and racism.
Immigration attorneys and foreign-born residents alike say a new, chilling climate has taken hold, one that raises the spectre of deportation for those in the country illegally even if they have not committed other crimes since their arrival.
Liberals talk of a system in need of a pathway to citizenship so undocumented residents no longer live in fear. Conservatives talk of one begging for enforcement — at the nation’s southern border and within the country itself, where they say illegal immigrants commit crimes and depress the wages of American workers.
And yet for all of the talk, no sweeping action seems to be in the offing.
Reform efforts by successive presidents, George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, crashed and burned, and Trump’s plans have been met by immediate opposition.
Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County and elsewhere, the issue continues to fester, generating fear among those worried they might be deported, concern among farmers who don’t have enough workers for their fields and anger among those who see illegal immigration as a threat to the nation’s economy and safety.
Over the next several months, The Palm Beach Post will explore various aspects of the issue, attempting to bring clarity to a topic that has remained maddeningly muddy.
There are no firm figures on precisely how many undocumented people live in Palm Beach County.
Using U.S. Census data from 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated in February that 450,000 undocumented people live in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area.
Two of Palm Beach County’s signature industries — tourism and agriculture — rely heavily on foreign-born workers.
Even as Trump castigates undocumented residents and calls for a reduction of legal immigration, his businesses in Palm Beach County make extensive use of foreign-born workers.
The Trump Organization has asked the federal government for dozens of special visas for people who would serve as waiters, waitresses, cooks and maids at Mar-a-Lago on Palm Beach and Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.
Every year, Trump hires dozens of foreign workers through the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2B visa program, which is similar to the H-2A program farmers use to staff their operations.
Foreign-born workers “definitely play a role in the make-up of the hospitality workforce here,” said David Semadeni, secretary of the Palm Beach County Hotel and Lodging Association. Exactly how much is difficult to say without doing an in-depth survey and I have not been able to do this.”
For farmers, the visa program is critical and, they say, utterly insufficient.
There are several problems with the program, said Lisa Lochridge, public affairs director for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
“It’s very expensive,” Lochridge said. “It’s incredibly cumbersome, and it’s not reliable.”
Farmers have to estimate how many workers they will need months before knowing anything about their harvest, Lochridge said. And foreign-born workers often aren’t processed on a timeline that matches up with when farmers need them.
Flawed as it is, the program is still important, Lochridge said.
“More and more growers are using it because it’s all we have,” she said. “They realize it’s one of the only tools in their toolbox”
Jobs offered through the H-2A program must first be made available to American workers. Lochridge said Americans aren’t lining up for jobs that are temporary and physically demanding.
With the limitations of the H-2A program, farmers turn to another important labor supply — illegal or undocumented workers.
“The reality is that agriculture still relies on foreign-born workers who may not be documented,” Lochridge said. “The stark reality is that these are jobs American workers will not do.”
That doesn’t have to be true, said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports better border management and lower overall levels of immigration.
Businesses want to hire undocumented workers so it can pay them less, Mehlman argued.
“Hiring illegal workers is basically a subsidy for these employers,” he said, “and the rest of us are paying in other areas.”
Those other areas include depressed wages and more demands on schools and law enforcement, Mehlman said.
“You’re not really getting anything cheaply,” he said. “You’re just padding the profit margins of these employers.”
Several studies, however, indicate that undocumented workers are a net positive to the U.S. economy.
A study released in February by Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research and Studies found that undocumented immigrants contribute $437.4 million to the economy of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area.
The precise impact of illegal or undocumented immigrants on education and law enforcement in Palm Beach County is difficult to discern.
Federal law prohibits the School District of Palm Beach County from asking students if they are here illegally. Aimed at protecting student privacy and preventing discrimination, the policy also makes it impossible to know how many students are not legal residents.
The district can and does track how many students speak English as a second language.
There were 17,196 English language learners in the district during the 2011-12 school year, the district reported. That figure dropped to 16,749 the next school year and stood at 16,895 in 2013-14.
The next three school years saw major upticks to 21,180 students in 2014-2015, 22,441 in 2015-16 and 24,639 in 2016-17, the district reported.
Not all English language learners are in the country illegally, of course. Many are the children of foreign-born residents who are in the country legally and have moved to the county from some other location.
More than 322,000 of Palm Beach County’s 1.4 million residents are foreign-born, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
As the immigration debate rages, high-profile crimes by undocumented residents have intensified calls for their deportation.
That was the case in May when Boynton Beach police say a truck driven by a 48-year old Mexican citizen, Victor Villanueva Rivera, hit and killed Brandon Wesson of Palm Beach Gardens as Villanueva was turning from Hypoluxo Road north onto Lawrence Road.
Wesson, 21, was thrown from the motorcycle he was riding and was dead by the time Boynton Beach Fire Rescue crews arrived.
Police said Villanueva, fearful of being caught driving without a license, kept going after he struck Wesson, dragging Wesson’s motorcycle behind his truck about 1,400 feet.
“This only proves Trump’s point why we need the wall!” one Palm Beach Post reader wrote on Facebook.
There is no tally for how many crimes in Palm Beach County are committed by undocumented immigrants.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Spokeswoman Teri Barbera said PBSO does not track crimes by illegal immigrants and therefore can’t give a “factual response” about whether criminal activity by undocumented residents is a significant problem here.
But the number of people PBSO detained for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was falling until this year.
PBSO detained 658 people in 2012 and 669 in 2013. In July of 2014, PBSO changed its policy, requiring a federal judge to sign off on the holds, which fell to 438 in 2014 and down to 168 in 2015 and 166 in 2016.
So far in 2017, the number of people detained for ICE stands at 258.
In July 2016, when he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Trump said that “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
Several studies, however, have shown that foreign-born residents — those here legally and illegally — are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes.
“With few exceptions, immigrants are less crime prone than natives or have no effect on crime rates,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst, wrote in 2015 for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Immigrant advocates say undocumented residents, fearing deportation, are reluctant to report when they are victims of crimes.
That was the experience of Maty Carrillo, a Guatemalan citizen who owns a tire sales and auto repair shop in Jupiter with her husband, Victor Chavez.
Carrillo said a man attempted to sexually assault her not long after she entered the U.S. illegally. She said she did not report the man because she feared deportation.
After attempting to get a work permit extended in March, Carrillo and her husband now both face deportation, part of more aggressive removal push launched since Trump became president.
“It’s a totally different culture with this administration,” said William Cavanaugh, an immigration attorney in West Palm Beach. “It’s very enforcement-oriented.”
The Obama administration focused its deportation efforts on undocumented residents who committed felonies after entering the country. The Trump administration has moved away from that focus, seeking instead to remove undocumented residents even if they have no criminal history beyond entering the country illegally.
“There are no changes in the law,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s just the application of it, a shift in priorities.”
Staff writer Mike Stucka contributed to this story.