Immigrant farmworkers in Central Valley ‘terrified’ of future

In today’s uncertain climate for immigrants, undocumented workers in the farm communities of California’s Central Valley are terrified of what may come next, says Jesus Martinez of the immigrant rights group, CIVIC. “There’s a generalized fear about how the anti-immigrant policies can impact them, to the extent that even permanent residents are fearful about how their status might be revoked without any justification,” Martinez told FERN’s Ag Insider.

The United States is home to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in agriculture. As many as 70 percent of California’s farmworkers are estimated to be unauthorized to work. Their plight became more pronounced Tuesday when the Trump administration released new and more forceful priorities for immigration enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security instructed officials to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who have been convicted of any criminal offense (not just serious crimes) and to expand the use of “expedited removals,” meaning swifter deportations, without the opportunity to seek counsel or appear before an immigration court. Previously, expedited removals were only used for immigrants who crossed the border within the past 14 days and were within 100 miles of the border; now, expedited removals can occur within two years of someone crossing the border, and from anywhere in the United States.

The directives also “seek to expand partnerships with local law enforcement agencies to apprehend undocumented immigrants, hire 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and 5,000 new Border Patrol agents,” according to The Washington Post.

Trump has publicly estimated the number of undocumented immigrants with convictions—which could include anything from murder to driving without a license—at “probably two million, it could be even three million” people, while the Migration Policy Institute estimates around 820,000. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations in Seattle and Los Angeles have already picked up what are called “collaterals”: undocumented people with no convictions, and who are not on their enforcement list, but who turn up in the process of looking for others.

“The difference seems to be that, whereas before, if they were looking for your brother-in-law, that they might ask you for papers, but usually, they wouldn’t take you in,” explains Camille Cook, a longtime immigration attorney who works largely with farmworker communities in the greater Fresno area.

Now that may be changing. Cook points out that when it comes to the raids and enforcement priorities, including those announced Tuesday, the laws haven’t explicitly changed. “What has really changed is the attitude. [ICE] now has permission. All the officers who felt like they were being reined in, they now feel like they have permission and encouragement” from the highest office in the land, she says.

In a Seattle case, for example, a young man with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—a temporary authorization for young immigrants enacted during the Obama administration—was detained by ICE while agents were looking for his father. While the DACA program has not been terminated by the new administration, officials claimed the DACA recipient was being held because he was a gang member. The young man denied the accusation.

Martinez’s group, CIVIC, along with the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (of which Cook is a Central Valley representative), offers Know Your Rights Trainings to undocumented immigrants, ensuring that they know they have certain rights as long as they are on U.S. soil. The training sessions, held on a weekly if not on a daily basis, serve an area “far larger than the LA metro region, larger than SF Bay Area, larger than a few states in the union,” Martinez says of the sprawling Central Valley. Attendance at these sessions, as well as the demand for them, has soared since the election.

“You don’t have to answer [ICE agents’) questions, you don’t have to open the door. That’s very, very difficult for people to understand, for people to have the strength and self confidence to do that,” Cook explains. Undocumented workers living in the shadows of the Central Valley — many of whom come from rural backgrounds in countries where corruption and police brutality run rampant — tend to want to cooperate with the authorities, and are hesitant to assert their rights, Cook said.

Workplace raids in the Central Valley — which supplies over a third of the country’s vegetables and two thirds of fruits and nuts —  haven’t occurred in years. In an industry so reliant on unauthorized workers, raiding a field would be an easy headline for the administration to tout its tough-on-immigration stance, but a blow to the agricultural industry that overwhelmingly supported Trump.

Prior to the new administration’s immigration-enforcement priorities, farms in California were already suffering from a shortage of workers. This is due in part to changing immigration dynamics. Even before the economic downturn in 2008, the number of single adults crossing into the U.S. decreased dramatically, while the number of children, teenagers and young families has skyrocketed. The current climate is expected to compound the worker shortage.

“They are holding contradictory positions,” Martinez explains of the pro-Trump growers and Central Valley politicians. “They are supporting very anti-immigrant policies and at the same time are expecting that there would be a very plentiful agricultural labor force.”

Meanwhile, the fear of raids is palpable, and has led to panic. Over the past few weeks, from Oakland to New York, false reports of immigration raids have spread like wildfire over social media. Same goes in the Fresno area.

“People are terrified,” Cook confirms. “There are many rumors about ICE activities. As I sit here today we don’t have any confirmed instances that ICE has done anything out of the ordinary in the greater Fresno area. But given what we know happened [recently] in LA and New York and other places, we are just expecting it to happen here and we’re trying to be ready.”

Schools, faith organizations, community centers and legal groups across the country are mobilizing in advance of possible raids, to ensure that legal teams can represent those rounded up and that detainees’ basic rights are respected.

In the Central Valley, however, there’s little philanthropic money to fund these operations, and limited capacity among lawyers and civil-society groups as compared to a place like the Bay Area, which is rich in both financial resources and organizational capacity. “We know we are only making a small dent,” Martinez says.

Lauren Markham, who is based in Northern California, last wrote about immigration and drought for FERN. Her book on child migrants from El Salvador, The Far Away Brothers,” will be published by Crown in the Fall of 2017.