Florida Is Shunning the People Who Helped Build It

The state can thank immigrants for much of its recent economic success, but now they're getting the cold shoulder.


In 1980, Florida experienced an immigration restrictionist's worst nightmare: a huge, rapid, and unauthorized influx of largely unskilled migrants.

That event was the Mariel boatlift, a mass migration that followed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's April 1980 announcement that Cubans wishing to leave the country could do so. In just six months, 125,000 Cuban immigrants arrived in Florida, half of them settling in Miami.

"Observers in Miami at the time of the Boatlift noted the strain caused by the Mariel immigration," wrote University of California, Berkeley, labor economist David Card in his highly influential (and contentious) 1990 paper on the boatlift. "Widespread joblessness of refugees throughout the summer of 1980 contributed to a perception that labor market opportunities for less-skilled natives were threatened by the Mariel immigrants." The boatlift increased Miami's labor force by a staggering 7 percent.

Politicians feared the worst. Bob Graham, who was then Florida's Democratic governor, told Congress that his state could not "subsidize…undesirables." With Florida communities forced to handle "an unduly harsh burden," he said, the federal government needed to "take responsibility for expelling those individuals now."

In retrospect, what didn't happen to the labor market is one of the biggest lessons from the boatlift. It "had virtually no effect on the wage rates of less-skilled non-Cuban workers," Card found, and virtually none on their unemployment rates either. "Rather, the data analysis suggests a remarkably rapid absorption of the Mariel immigrants into the Miami labor force."

There's a broad reason for this: The economy isn't a fixed pie. As immigrants begin to consume in a new place, jobs will arise to address the increased demand. There's a Florida-specific reason, too: "In the two decades before the Mariel Boatlift Miami had absorbed a continuing flow of Cubans, and in the years since the Boatlift it has continued to receive large numbers of Nicaraguans and other Central Americans," wrote Card. "Thus, the Mariel immigration can be seen as part of a long-run pattern that distinguishes Miami from most other American cities."

The Marielitos integrated into their new communities, founded businesses, and transformed local economies. The "long-run pattern" of welcoming that Card identified has continued not just in Miami, where 58.1 percent of residents are foreign-born, but across Florida. Immigrants have become a major force in the state. More than one in five residents is an immigrant; per 2022 data from the Florida Policy Institute, 77 percent of immigrant Floridians have been in the state for a decade or more.

Florida's population growth has outpaced the national growth rate every year since the 2000s, and it became the country's fastest-growing state in 2022, largely fueled by domestic and international migration. Its economic growth has also outpaced that of the U.S., with real gross domestic product growth coming in at 91.3 percent over 1997–2022, compared to the national rate of 73.6 percent.

It's no coincidence that Florida's economy has boomed as its population has grown. But now Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and other immigration restrictionists are embracing policies that aim to keep foreign migrants out, even as they hail the economic growth that newcomers have helped create. If they succeed in shutting the state's doors, they could very well stifle the force that has powered so much of Florida's success.


The Mariel boatlift rocked South Florida in many ways; some observers have noted that property crime and murder rates went up. (Others, such as Reason Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin, cast doubt on the connection.) But looking back on the boatlift in a 2016 interview with El Nuevo Herald, César Odio, who was an assistant city manager in Miami during Mariel, said the chaos helped prepare the area for future migration events. The newcomers mostly became valuable community members: "On balance, Odio and other former officials said, Miami and Miami-Dade benefited from Mariel because the majority of the refugees went on to become successful citizens," wrote El Nuevo Herald's Alfonso Chardy.

Another wave of Cuban migrants arrived in South Florida in 1994, numbering around 35,000. Florida was one of the country's top destinations for immigrants throughout the 1990s—and not at the expense of economic growth. "During the 1990s, Florida has been topped only by Texas in the number of jobs created," Stanley K. Smith, director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said in August 1999. Despite a recession in the early 1990s, property values and tax revenue soared.

Immigrant population growth was more than double native-born population growth in the early 2000s. Foreign newcomers primarily worked in critical sectors such as "agriculture, services, construction, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing," and manufacturing, according to a 2007 paper by Florida International University's Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy. From 2000 to 2005, immigrants received less in public assistance than nonimmigrants did, and they comprised a larger share of the self-employed. Construction jobs for Latinos were more numerous in the South than in other parts of the country between 2003 and 2006. Meanwhile, "the rate of housing supply per capita nearly doubled" in Florida relative to the 1990s, according to a 2012 Federal Reserve Bank of New York study.

"Although its share has declined in recent decades, net migration still accounts for more than 80% of Florida's population growth," explained Smith and his colleague Scott Cody in a 2010 report. Florida's immigrant population growth clocked in at 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2014, compared to a national rate of 5.8 percent. About 68 percent of Florida's immigrant population was working-aged, compared to just 48 percent of the native-born population, according to a 2014 New American Economy paper—making foreign-born residents 38.7 percent more likely to work than natives.

In 1990, the Migration Policy Institute reports, Florida was home to 1.66 million immigrants, who made up 12.9 percent of the total state population; by 2021, they numbered 4.6 million, or 21.2 percent. These days, only California, New Jersey, and New York have a higher immigrant share of the population.

Florida's Hispanic voters are increasingly voting Republican, and people who naturalized as U.S. citizens after fleeing authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and Venezuela represent important voting blocs for the right. Recent domestic transplants—e.g., those who moved to Florida during the pandemic—have also skewed Republican. Against this backdrop, Florida narrowly elected DeSantis governor in 2018 and overwhelmingly reelected him in 2022.

Florida Falls Short

"If you have folks who are inclined to think Florida is a good place [to settle], our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state," DeSantis said at a 2022 press conference.

The governor, who now is running for president, has made no secret of his hardline stance on immigration: His campaign's economic agenda argues that a "fair labor market" requires "securing the border, enforcing our laws," and "limiting unskilled immigration." Far from seeing undocumented immigrants as people with valuable skills and economic potential, DeSantis regards them as "threats" and a "burden" to taxpayers.

But DeSantis isn't against all migrants. "Florida ranks #1 in the nation for attracting and developing [a] skilled workforce," bragged a November 2022 press release from DeSantis' office. Shortly before he launched his presidential run, the governor boasted that Florida is "the fastest-growing state in the nation," ranking "number one for net in-migration." His campaign trail pitch to make America Florida relies on many of the same tactics that drew hundreds of thousands of people to his state during the pandemic.

While he boasts about American workers flocking to Florida, DeSantis won't admit the benefits of foreigners doing the same.

That line of thinking fueled his decision to fly dozens of migrants who were "trying to come to Florida" from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. "At a news conference," The Washington Post reported, "DeSantis said his program was insulating Florida against the costs of absorbing new immigrants." His 2023–2024 budget called for an additional $12 million for migrant transport "to protect Floridians against the harms resulting from illegal immigration."

The move was a controversial and legally dubious use of state funds. It siphoned cash from tax coffers that DeSantis has bragged were filled by American migrants fleeing blue localities. It also sent willing workers away from the state: A few migrants stayed in Martha's Vineyard and found jobs in landscaping and painting.

DeSantis sent an even stronger signal when he signed Senate Bill 1718, a harsh immigration crackdown bill, into law last May. Its measures have limited protections and rights for undocumented immigrants, barring localities from issuing them ID cards and making it a felony for Floridians to knowingly transport people who are undocumented into the state. Those policies are bad enough, putting roughly 772,000 undocumented Floridians at risk. But the bill's most visible damage has come from the measure most closely tied to the state economy: E-Verify.

That federal system checks the immigration status of hired workers, subjecting employers to a time-consuming and costly compliance process. The benefits aren't clear, but the downsides are: It punishes employers for their hiring practices, strips jobs from immigrants who want to work, and forces both foreign-born and native-born workers to get yet another permission slip to live their lives. DeSantis' E-Verify mandate means that all Florida employers—even private ones—with 25 or more workers must certify that those workers are all legally present in the country. Noncompliant employers face fines of $1,000 per day.

Viral videos quickly emerged showing construction sites that had gone silent, seemingly empty of undocumented workers who might be punished under the new measures. More than 300,000 immigrants worked in Florida's construction sector as of 2018—and according to a New American Economy analysis, 17 percent of the entire construction work force was undocumented as of 2014. It's difficult to estimate how many undocumented immigrants left Florida because they feared S.B. 1718's consequences. But even before the bill formally took effect, news outlets reported that migrants were seeking greener pastures.

If Florida ends up driving away immigrant workers, it could expect staffing shortages in some of the sectors that are most important to its continued growth. Immigrants make up 49 percent of farming, fishing, and forestry occupations, according to an American Immigration Council analysis of 2018 Census Bureau data. About 38 percent of construction and extraction workers are immigrants. Immigrants fill 35 percent of health care support roles, which are critical as the state faces a staggering aging crisis.

As he campaigned for a second term as governor, DeSantis ran on the state's economic progress and attractiveness to newcomers, ostensibly forged under his watch. He's done the same as a presidential hopeful. But much of what he's running on predates him—and could be wiped away if the government keeps clamping down on immigration.

Is the Miracle Over?

Some of Florida's hard-liner politicians have begun to realize just how difficult life can be without undocumented immigrants.

S.B. 1718 "is 100 percent supposed to scare you," conceded state Rep. Rick Roth (R–West Palm Beach) in June. Though Roth voted for the bill, he came to see "unintended consequences" among Florida's immigrant workers. "Farmers are mad as hell….We are losing employees that are already starting to move to Georgia and other states." Roth urged the audience to "talk to all your other people" to clarify what the bill actually does.

The law wasn't set to take effect for another month. But the looming threat was enough to scare away immigrant residents, and the reality of a state without immigrants was enough to scare restrictionist politicians.

If Florida keeps up its crackdown, there's no telling where the damage will end. Jobs are already going unfilled: "Florida has 68 available workers for every 100 open jobs," found a September U.S. Chamber of Commerce report. Immigrant workers have been important players in post-hurricane reconstruction, but a summer 2023 survey by Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant disaster workers, found that more than half of its 2,000 members wouldn't go to Florida to assist with hurricane relief. The Florida Policy Institute estimated in April that the E-Verify mandate alone could cost the state economy $12.6 billion in a single year. None of those numbers capture the lost small-business employees, community members, and parents simply trying to provide for their families.

Florida will gain an estimated 4 million residents by 2030. To sustain that growth, it'll need strong agriculture, construction, and health care sectors—all currently disproportionately staffed by immigrants. The boom isn't likely to continue without them.

Florida has already shown it can handle the most chaotic of migration events and come out of them stronger. "Mariel was very bad in the beginning, but it was very good in the end," former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré told El Nuevo Herald in 2016. "The vast majority of these people were honest, decent, hard working, industrious people…who are now doctors, bankers, entrepreneurs and who really uplifted the community."