Wielding large signs and vibrant hand flags representing different countries, dozens of students and residents alike chanted in unison at the intersection of 13th Street and West University Avenue.
“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” the crowd cheered.
Gainesville residents gathered Wednesday afternoon to protest proposed state legislation House Bill 1617, which would increase penalties for those working with undocumented immigrants and survey collection on them.
The protest was a collaboration among multiple activist groups in the area, namely the Florida Immigrant Coalition, the Rural Women’s Health Project, the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative, the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County and Madres Sin Fronteras.
One portion of HB 1617 looks to further dissuade private companies from employing undocumented immigrants by allowing the Department of Economic Opportunity to conduct random audits on the citizenship status of companies’ employees.
If in violation, businesses can have their licenses revoked.
HB 1617 hasn’t been voted on by a committee yet, but its Senate equivalent passed 15-5 through its first committee March 15.
Victoria Gomez de la Torre, director of the county’s Migrant Education Program and an Ecuadorian immigrant, said the bill would be destructive to the agricultural economy.
“How do you have farmers who rely on migrant workers and then, on the other hand, penalize them for being here and doing the work that they’re hired for?” she said.
An estimated half of the around 700,000 farm workers in Florida are undocumented, according to a USAToday report.
Beyond raising signs and crowd interaction, the protest provided literature in English and Spanish that outlined HB 1617, as well as steps to contact state legislators.
Danielle Chanzes, a local activist and co-organizer of the event, said taking concrete action was equally important to showing community support.“It’s important that we’re not just here chanting,” Chanzes said. “But our chants mean something.”
Another concern was the bill’s increased penalties for people providing support for undocumented immigrants; anyone housing or transporting an undocumented immigrant into or within the country could face felony charges.
Estelle Erwich, a 21-year-old UF political science and international studies junior, works as the director of external affairs for Gator Refugee Medical Relief, a student organization that helps provide education and health resources to refugees. While the organization only works with protected-status refugees, it appeared to support its community partners at the event, she said.
The legislation doesn’t represent Florida’s melting pot culture, Erwich said.“I’m from Miami — everybody’s an immigrant,” she said, “It’s just not what the citizens want.”
The bill will also require hospitals to submit regular reports on the citizenship status of their patients, as well as how much money was spent on uncompensated care of undocumented immigrants.
Some residents felt the supermajority in Florida’s legislature made fighting the bill difficult.
Sheila Payne, Alachua County Labor Coalition’s housing coordinator, said that while she thinks attending Florida’s congress wasn’t worthwhile, providing community support and representation goes a long way.
“It’s all about saying we don’t accept it,” she said, “Not everybody is willing to go along.”
Protestors left the street corner energetic and happy, talking among each other.
Ethan Maia de Needell, one of the protest’s organizers, said it was inspiring to see so many organizations join forces for the cause.
“There’s a lot of energy,” he said. “I’m so happy to see so many people I’ve been working close with.”
Contact Aidan Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.
Aidan Bush is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2024 Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he likes to listen to music and go kayaking.