The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida has long been a sanctuary for immigrants. That’s now being tested.

Greimar Torrado looks at an ornament at a warehouse run by the Venezuela Awareness Foundation, which helps provide migrants with clothes, shoes and other basic needs in Doral, Fla. (Bryan Cereijo for The Washington Post)

MIAMI — As record numbers of Cubans and Venezuelans reach the United States, Florida is rapidly becoming an epicenter of the nation’s divisive immigration debate, casting a shadow over the state’s reputation as a beacon of opportunity for new arrivals amid a deepening political feud.

New data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that immigrant communities that have traditionally settled in Florida in large numbers now make up a growing share of the migrants reaching Texas and requesting asylum. While the Sunshine State has not provided current data on how many then move on to Florida, Miami-Dade County officials estimate that tens of thousands have arrived over the past year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard continues to intercept thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants on boats as they attempt to reach Florida by sea.

The wave of people hoping to start anew in the Miami area is testing South Florida’s ability to absorb one of the largest migrant influxes in decades. And as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wades deeper into the immigration debate — flying 50 migrants, most of them from Venezuela, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard this month — his actions are sparking a broader debate over the state’s standing as a safe haven for those fleeing poverty, violence and dictatorship.

“We are seeing more people say, ‘We need to step up the pressure and close the door,’ even if it’s the very same door that me and my parents walked through,” said Michael Bustamante, associate professor of history and Cuban American studies at the University of Miami.

Throughout Miami, migrants such as Greimar Torrado, 30, are hoping they will continue to feel welcomed in Florida, a state many are just starting to familiarize themselves with. She embarked on a 23-day trek with her boyfriend from Venezuela to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, arriving last month.

Now they hope to establish roots here — even if it means sleeping on an air mattress in a relative’s studio apartment.

“We decided to come to Miami, because we have friends in Miami,” Torrado said. “If God decides for us to stay here, we will stay here. If God decides we should move somewhere else, we will.”

‘Nothing can compare to this’

For generations, the immigration debate in Florida has been tempered by a cultural sensitivity instilled by waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America. The diversity — 1 in 5 Florida residents are foreign-born — has transformed both the culture and politics of South Florida in particular over the past 60 years.

In Miami, signs of Latino influence are ubiquitous, from the ventanitas selling Cuban cafecito to national landmarks like the Freedom Tower, known as the “Ellis Island of the South.”

“Miami wouldn’t be what it is without the immigrants it opened the doors for,” said María Corina Vegas, a Venezuelan American who helps lead a bipartisan national group advocating for immigration’s economic benefits.

But the new wave of migrants eclipses those that have come before.

Tens of thousands of Cubans began fleeing the communist state last year after Nicaragua lifted its visa requirement, opening up a new channel to try to reach the United States through Central America. Political instability and gang violence has fueled an ongoing exodus of people fleeing Haiti. In South America, Venezuelan migrants are taking risky journeys by foot to flee inflation, poverty and the country’s autocratic president.

In all, Cubans, Colombians, Haitians and Venezuelans — all demographic groups with extensive family in and cultural ties to South Florida — accounted for about 1 of every 4 immigrants who encountered a CBP officer in August.

“There is nothing like this in the history of Cuban migration,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “Whether by land, sea or air, nothing can compare to this.”

According to Miami-Dade officials, 58,000 Cuban refugees living in the county received state humanitarian assistance from Oct. 1, 2021, through July 1 — many of them recent arrivals. They are part of an estimated 197,000 Cuban nationals who came into contact with federal immigration officials while entering the country over the last year. Historians say the exodus represents the largest resettling of Cuban migrants to the United States, surpassing even the 150,000 Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s government during the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

Venezuelans are fleeing in similar numbers. According to CBP data, 155,000 Venezuelans have arrived since last October — three times the number apprehended over the previous fiscal year.

DeSantis said his fear is that a sizable share of those migrants eventually arrive in Florida, which he said justified his use of state tax dollars to transport migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida’s a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state,” he said. “And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”

The rising numbers pose a predicament for DeSantis. On the one hand, maintaining the loyalty of key Latino voters in Florida is important as he seeks reelection in November. On the other, he is also trying to appeal to a broader audience that is tough on migration as he weighs a potential 2024 presidential run.

While many Cuban and Venezuelan supporters appear to be standing by him, others are incensed by the Martha’s Vineyard flights.

“Not only is [DeSantis’s] policy ineffective, inefficient and costly to taxpayers, but it’s also completely detached from what Florida’s history is,” Vegas said.

In recent days, Republican leaders have stepped up to defend DeSantis’s actions. Even Rep. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the 1950s, has been stiffening his stance.

“What’s happening in Venezuela, what’s happening unfortunately now in Colombia, what has been taking place for more than seven decades in Cuba, what’s happening in Nicaragua, is unfortunate and very sad,” Rubio, speaking in Spanish, said in an Instagram post. “But no country in the world can take on the responsibility of thousands and thousands of people entering illegally every day.”

‘In Miami … I feel free’

In Miami-Dade County, where foreign-born residents make up 57 percent of the county’s 2.7 million residents, local leaders stress that new arrivals are still mostly being absorbed without major financial hardship or cultural backlash.

Many are sleeping on the couches of sympathetic relatives who have taken them in. The vast majority of these migrants, county leaders say, are in the country legally because they have already been processed by CBP and allowed to remain in the United States pending further proceedings.

Yet, Miami-Dade leaders note that the new Cuban, Colombian, Haitian, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan migrants are arriving at a time when the county’s housing market has grown increasingly expensive even for established middle-class families.

“We are going to continue being what we have always been, a welcoming community,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D). But, she added, “we want to be sure the federal government is aware if we have a big onslaught we will need their support.”

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, said the recent influx of migrants is already threatening to undercut the county’s success in reducing its population of homeless residents. In recent weeks, Book said, his office has encountered “multiple migrant families” nearly every day who are in need of emergency shelter. The county is keeping its limited supply of emergency shelter space for U.S. citizens, but the trust refers migrants to social service agencies and, in some cases, helps migrants buy bus or plane tickets to other cities.

“My community should be concerned,” Book said. “We do the best we can … but anyone who thinks this is not a growing crisis is really fooling themselves.”

Patricia Andrade, director of the Venezuelan Awareness Foundation, a group that helps new arrivals in the Miami area, said migrants traditionally want to go wherever they have family or the best chance of finding a job. Increasingly, she said, those places are outside Florida.

“A lot of them are going to places like Utah, Arizona and North Carolina. In fact, last week, of a group of some 1,300 that were processed, the majority was heading to Utah,” Andrade said. “The bottom line is that there’s definitely a new trend — 70 percent is going to another place, while only 30 percent is coming to Miami.”

Nonetheless, many are still intent on reaching South Florida, where restaurants, stores and homes that sound and smell like home abound.

Every Friday, dozens of Venezuelan asylum seekers line up outside a warehouse in Doral — a corner of South Florida nicknamed “Doralzuela” — where volunteers hand out clothes, shoes and other basic necessities like kitchen utensils.

The only thing they can’t help with is housing.

“And that’s actually a big problem now, because we have Venezuelans who are sleeping in the streets,” she added.

As he picked through toys and clothing Friday, Simon Briceño recounted an 18-day trek by bus and foot from Venezuela to the Texas border with his wife and three children. He decided to leave after finding it increasingly difficult to support his family on a $100-per-month salary as an oil worker. Though still waiting for a work permit, he’s been stunned to learn he might soon be able to make the same amount in a single day as a construction worker.

“In Miami, I feel secure, and I feel free,” he said.

For now, however, Briceño is struggling. His family lives with his cousin’s family — about 10 people total — all sharing an efficiency apartment that rents for $2,000 a month.

“This is the first time in my life I have ever had to seek donations,” he said.

‘Why shouldn’t we protect ours?’

Since being elected governor in 2018, DeSantis has attempted to position Florida both as a welcoming place for refugees fleeing dictators and as a state that takes an increasingly dim view of immigrants who don’t enter with a visa.

When he appears at events in Miami, DeSantis frequently touts Florida as a beacon of “freedom” and vows to work with Cuban American activists and faith leaders — many of whom are Republicans — to support immigrant communities.

But DeSantis has also signed legislation that mandates that police work with federal immigration authorities and bans Florida municipalities from implementing “sanctuary city” polices, as well as a bill that penalizes local governments and private contractors that transport “unauthorized” immigrants in the state.

His administration has increasingly appeared to struggle as DeSantis attempts to navigate the immigration debate.

Last month, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez (R), a Cuban American who DeSantis selected for the job, caused a firestorm in South Florida when she suggested that Florida would soon begin busing Cuban migrants to Delaware.

Both Núñez and DeSantis quickly backtracked, with the governor telling reporters his policies “do not apply for refugees.” Two weeks later, DeSantis authorized the flight that transported migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. No Cubans were aboard — but there were dozens of Venezuelans planning to apply for asylum.

“This unquestionably was a clear warning to us,” said Frank O’Loughlin, executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, an immigrant rights group based in Palm Beach County. “With the governor’s antics, we feel like we are on the cusp of something dreadful.”

Yet, political analysts say they remain skeptical that DeSantis will suffer lasting political ramifications for his actions.

Susan A. MacManus, a veteran Florida political analyst, said the Latino community remains “fairly split” over whether DeSantis did anything wrong by flying migrants to Massachusetts. She noted that South Florida is rife with rumors that criminals and drug dealers are among those arriving.

“A lot of this has to do with the nature of who they think is coming,” MacManus said.

Bustamante, from the University of Miami, added that Florida’s immigrant communities may now be moving away from the “sentiment that he, or she, who comes after us are part of the same story.” He said that shift in attitude makes it easier for DeSantis and Rubio to appear more rigid on the issue.

On Wednesday, social justice organizations held a rally at a park in Doral surrounded by luxury apartments and an upscale shopping center, a sign of the Venezuelan American community’s growing economic clout, to condemn DeSantis’s actions.

“He turns his back on us,” said Liz Rebecca Alarcón, executive director of Pulso, a media organization that attempts to get Latinos more engaged in the political process.

As Alarcón spoke in the park, Silvia Quinez, 38, walked by with her two children. A Colombian who moved to the United States 18 years ago, Quinez said she supports DeSantis’s immigration policies and accused Biden of “keeping the borders too open.”

“I don’t think it’s safe for our country,” said Quinez, referring to the United States. “Anyone can come through, and they are not checking their backgrounds or anything … We protect other country’s borders. Why shouldn’t we protect ours?”

But as she stood outside a shelter in San Antonio on Tuesday and picked through boxes of donated clothing, Yormeni Lopez said she hopes Florida keeps the door open. The single mother of three children — ages 13, 6 and 9 months — crossed the Rio Grande on Sept. 17. She clung to them while crossing the chest-high water.

Now she plans to join her uncle in Miami.

“He’s going to help me find work,” she said.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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