Fears over Florida immigration law as people brace for Hurricane Idalia

Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno

As Hurricane Idalia intensified Tuesday morning, people like Laudi Campos have been fielding calls from community groups asking if Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stringent immigration law will limit their ability to help immigrant families prepare for the storm.

As residents in Volusia County, just outside the Orlando area, tried to decide whether to evacuate or hunker down in a safe place, some were asking if people who went to shelters in the state would be asked for identification and what the potential impact would be for those lacking legal immigration status.

Campos, who is the state director for the Hispanic Federation, one of the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organizations, has been letting community organizations know that identification is "not a requirement."

"They should go to a shelter, if they feel that their life is in danger," she said.

The Hispanic Federation as well as other Latino and immigrant rights organizations in Florida have been reminding residents bracing for Hurricane Idalia that anyone can request shelter, regardless of their immigration status.

The reminder comes weeks after DeSantis' SB 1718 law went into effect on July 1, imposing restrictions and penalties meant to deter the employment of undocumented workers in the state.

Some of them make it a felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport an undocumented person into the state (including relatives and acquaintances), invalidates out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to immigrants who lack legal status and requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask about immigration status (though patients may decline to answer the question).

“Floridians & immigrants CAN request shelter & aid!” the organization said in a social media post Monday as it urged residents to share the information.

Even though shelters are not required to ask about immigration status under SB 1718, the law has already sowed doubt in immigrant communities “because they know that they have already been targeted,” Campos said. Some have already left the state because of fears around the law.

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Latino and immigrant rights organizations have said shelters should not ask anyone for identification in order to provide refuge. Immigration authorities are also not supposed to operate during a state of emergency.

Campos encouraged families to contact the Hispanic Federation hotline during business hours or the hotline from the Florida Immigrant Coalition if shelters or emergency response personnel do otherwise.

Tessa Petit of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which advocates for immigrant rights, said her organization has learned of instances in which counties had asked people for identification to provide sandbags or access to shelters during previous natural disasters.

Those accounts, combined with the uncertainty surrounding SB 1718, prompted Petit to remind immigrant families of their rights, especially if they have relatives without legal immigration status.

"Leaving their home to seek shelter somewhere does not put them at risk of deportation," said Petit, the organization’s executive director. "Their immigration status should not prevent them, cannot prevent them, from having access to shelter."

As of Tuesday evening, the Florida Immigrant Coalition had not received any reports of families being denied refuge or assistance because of their immigration statuses, but the organization has legal experts and advocates ready to respond if that changes as Hurricane Idalia makes landfall Wednesday.

Campos particularly called on those who are noncitizens not to wait until the last minute to evacuate dangerous areas.

“Don’t wait. Your life is more important, and we can help,” she said.

Petit shared a similar warning: "Don't allow fear to paralyze you and put your life at risk. If you're in an evacuation zone, you need to move into a shelter."

While undocumented immigrants may not qualify for federal emergency assistance programs, others with green cards, certain visas or other immigration protections may be able to access some aid, according to the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

Petit worries that immigrant families that could qualify for aid may be "more afraid to access such services." Her organization is looking to identify other alternatives for such families to feel safe seeking help, she said.

The Guatemalan Mayan Center in South Florida is also partnering with the Hispanic Federation to extend assistance to those Floridians who may only speak Indigenous languages such as Popti, Q’anjob’al and Akateko, Campos said.

The needs of families who live under the federal poverty line or in substandard housing are only exacerbated during a natural disaster, Campos said.

The Hispanic Federation was partnering with 120 community partners groups in the state to provide access to food and water for families during the hurricane.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com