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How one immigration law backed by DeSantis could backfire for him politically

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Florida immigration law forces some businesses to run new employees through an immigration status database. This crackdown on undocumented workers has fueled fears of a Latino exodus from the state. And now some Republicans are worried that the new law might hurt their party's political fortunes. NPR's Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: On a steamy summer day in Miami, flea market vendor Bessy Hernandez is doing her best to drum up sales.

BESSY HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: Avocados from Florida, pineapples from Costa Rica, plantains from Colombia mark a small sampling of the 73-year-old's colorful inventory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

GRISALES: For decades, vendors at the Tropicana Flea Market have worked weekends under the hot sun, listening to music, trading jokes and good stories. But lately, those stories have turned grim thanks to a new Florida immigration law that's hurting sales for Hernandez and others.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: She says, "no millionaire is coming to a flea market." Rather, her customer base is comprised of people just like her - humble workers who are now leaving the state. Hernandez says it's a tough moment in her 27 years of running her produce stand. In all, she knows 30 Floridians who have moved to other states, and her sales in recent months have dropped 40%. It's a story that's grown all too common for a state economy that's highly reliant on migrants for its tourism, agriculture and construction industries.

CARLOS CURBELO: Even a lot of Republican business owners are worried and complaining about this law because they view it as unnecessary and disruptive.

GRISALES: That's former Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo at a recent Miami journalism conference. He and other Republicans argue the law could hurt Governor Ron DeSantis and those down-ballot GOP candidates who would be tied to him.

CURBELO: This is another issue where, you know, Republican candidates try to flex in the primaries, try to prove their conservative credentials but end up doing damage to themselves in general elections.

GRISALES: Last month, civil rights groups sued the state over the law, which took effect July 1. And while anecdotal evidence of Latinos leaving Florida is growing, experts say it will take time to see how widespread that impact is. In Washington, Republican members of the Florida congressional delegation, like longtime Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, blame the Biden administration for the new law.

MARIO DIAZ-BALART: Whatever states are doing is just a sign of how bad and how desperate and how catastrophic the administration has been dealing with - or has not been dealing with the issue of border security.

GRISALES: But those politics are pretty far removed from the Tropicana Flea Market.

DANNY PEREDA: So we're, like, struggling because we have to pay the rent and everything.

GRISALES: That's Danny Pereda, a watch repairman in the market. The vendors still face overhead costs even without money coming in. Combined with the summer's extreme heat driving away even more customers, he says a new immigration law could be a death knell.

PEREDA: Because immigration people are leaving, it's hurting ourselves, too. That's why it's empty.

GRISALES: Pereda's business is down 80 to 90%. Some Florida Republicans have gone as far as discrediting the law, saying it has no teeth and should not scare migrants away. But only time will tell what impact it could have on the state's economy and population - a pretty important metric for a pretty important political and economic powerhouse. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.