Families Broken Up As Immigrants Flee Alabama Fearing deportation, women and children are arriving at a migrant center in Florida without their husbands, who've stayed in Alabama to work the harvest. The scenario has created hardships for the women who can't work — and a migrant center that doesn't have enough money to serve them.
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Families Broken Up As Immigrants Flee Alabama

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Families Broken Up As Immigrants Flee Alabama

Families Broken Up As Immigrants Flee Alabama

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To Florida now, where some families say neighboring Alabama's tough new immigration law is forcing them to cross state lines and, in some cases, to split up. Women and children are making their way from Alabama to a migrant center in Florida several weeks early while their husbands stay behind to finish the tomato harvest. Other families who aren't migrant workers are arriving for the first time.

As Scott Finn of member station WUSF reports, the law is creating hardships for wives who cannot work and for the migrant center that doesn't have enough money to serve them.

SCOTT FINN, BYLINE: Every fall, migrant workers follow the tomato harvest south, from Alabama to Mulberry, Florida in the campus of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. It's an oasis of shady oak trees amid acres and acres of tomato fields.


FINN: Emilia has been here before. She's come to register her younger daughter for Head Start. But this year, she's come six weeks early. And for the first time in 10 years of marriage, she and her kids are alone.

EMILIA: (Through translator) Well, they started to cry because they did not want to leave.

FINN: Her husband is still in Alabama harvesting tomatoes. Emilia asked we not use her last name because she fears deportation. They decided to divide up the family temporarily to avoid being split up permanently. Emilia, her husband and oldest daughter are Mexican nationals. Her younger daughter and son are U.S. citizens.

EMILIA: (Through translator) Well, they're pretty scared. The kid who's from here, who's seven years old, he tells me, I don't want you to go to Mexico. What are we going to do in Mexico? We don't know Mexico.

FINN: No one knows how many people are fleeing from Alabama to Florida. Construction workers with Alabama plates have shown up in Orlando. And children from Alabama are appearing at some schools across the state. There are similar reports out of Mississippi and Tennessee. In this tiny community, there are at least 15 families that are split like Emilia's.

Usually, Emilia works with her husband in the fields. But she's too early for the Florida harvest. A woman at the center asks Emilia how she gets by.

EMILIA: (Through translator) I wouldn't know what to say. It's tough.

FINN: Even if there was work, she has no one to watch her four-year-old daughter.

Migrant worker advocate Lourdes Villanueva shows us the preschool rooms - everything is still wrapped in plastic. The organization can't open early, it barely has enough money to last the traditional harvest season. And she's not just seeing migrant workers this time. Other families are coming down from Alabama who've never worked in the fields. Because of her grant funding, she can't help them.

LOURDES VILLANUEVA: Well, that is the hardest thing because you know that this - you know the situation that they are in and you know why they're here. And it's pretty much, you know, you have your - you feel like you have your hands tied.

FINN: She says that, in a way, the Alabama law is just an escalation. Last year, five children in her program saw one of their parents deported.

VILLANUEVA: We see the fear in those kids' eyes every day. They don't know if they're parents are going to come back to pick them up or not. Same thing with the mothers. In the mornings when they hand them over to you, they don't know if they're going to get to see their kid or not in the afternoon.

JACK OLIVER: Folks try and say that and we understand everybody's plight that comes from these other countries. And we're sympathetic towards that, but it's not a victimless crime.

FINN: That's Jack Oliver. He's legislative director for the group, Floridians for Immigration Enforcement and a former construction worker. He says illegal labor has depressed wages and made it harder for people like him to find work.

OLIVER: I've worked in construction since 1968. Every place that illegal aliens were introduced by these companies that are operating outside the wall, I saw my wages and my income drop.

FINN: He wants Florida to pass its own version of Alabama's law, which continues to have the full support of Alabama's governor, Robert Bentley. Several surrounding states now require employers to use the eVerify system to check their employees' status and Oliver is upset that Florida doesn't.

OLIVER: We've, in effect, become a magnet for all the illegal aliens. We're the closest in proximity in our state legislature because of their failure to act to protect the citizens has made us, in effect, a sanctuary state.

FINN: Both sides of the immigration debate agree on one thing: That Congress has failed to do its job, leaving it up to each state to work out its own imperfect solution and further straining state budgets in a difficult economy.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Tampa.

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