Henry Flagler’s railroad and Napoleon Broward’s pledge to drain the Everglades forged the beginnings of today’s modern South Florida. No two forces have been as influential on the economy as immigration and real estate. The two are intertwined with Flagler and Gov. Broward. Immigrants provided the labor, while the railroad and draining of the Everglades opened up real estate.
We asked for listener questions about the economy and several of them were focused on these two issues.
The issue of immigration has been big since the presidential race. Every month, the Gallup organization surveys Americans about what they think the most important problem is for the country. Earlier this year, immigration was mentioned as the most important challenge. It was bigger than jobs or the economy in general.
Most people living and working in South Florida are not natives. About two-thirds of residents between Jupiter and Florida City were born in a different state or born in a different country, according to 2015 data from the Census Bureau. The foreign-born data includes legal and undocumented immigrants. Pew Research estimates about 450,000 undocumented immigrants live in South Florida. That's about 7.5 percent of the population.
"The great majority of undocumented immigrants — 90 percent of them — have been in South Florida prior to 2010," said Ali Bustamante with FIU's Center for Labor Research and Studies. "They're not necessarily a source of temporary labor, but they are certainly an entrenched part of our community."
Where in the world are South Floridian immigrants from?
Here is a heat map showing where immigrants who now call South Florida home were born. The Census Bureau data is from 2015.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been conducting targeted enforcement operations this year going after what it says are undocumented people with criminal records and other violations ranging from child sex crimes to driving with no driver’s license.
Dozens were arrested in late April in South Florida, including 16 arrests each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Hundreds of people have been picked up nationwide since the raids began in February.
In a region with millions of workers, a few dozen people detained won’t get picked up in any economic statistic, so Pattie’s question about the impact on prices and services if undocumented immigrants face mass deportation may seem like an artificial premise. But FIU's Bustamante calls it an "excellent question" that "has not necessarily received a lot of attention from news outlets and certainly not from policymakers."
Industries with a higher concentration of undocumented workers would be most at risk — construction, child care, hospitality. "Many of these industries would automatically face labor shortages that will ultimately compel them to do one of two things," Bustamente said. He said companies in those industries using undocumented workers would have to choose between going out of business or raising prices. He estimates in Florida undocumented workers represent 6.2 percent of the workforce and he thinks it is a safe assumption that it is a higher proportion in South Florida.
Cultural and language barriers prevent those undocumented workers from replacing others in the job market, according to Bustamante.
He said the cost of undocumented labor in the industries those workers traditionally gather is "crucial" to the prices of those goods and services. "Whether you're looking at child care or food, much of these industries are structured to use a high share of labor. It provides us with a strong indication of how much more prices can be if these kinds of labor costs were to increase substantially."