By Stan Santos
The cold settles in on another dry winter and the fields, orchards and packing operations are in full swing as the land continues to provide its gifts. During this time, citrus is king, with the oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons and other fruits and winter vegetables, thanks to the small amount of moisture left from 2017. The dairies, meat and poultry processing never end.
As always, and with little thanks, the products meant for consumption by families throughout the United States and the world are picked, processed, packed and shipped by the hands of workers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other places to the south. They are the descendants of the original peoples of the Americas, from the lands of Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins.”
This year is different as a bitter wind sweeps across the land, striking silently but with devastating effects on communities such as Fowler, Sanger, Reedley, Parlier and other parts of Fresno County. It carries the message of hard times to come for thousands of Central Valley families. It is a man-made disaster that is as impersonal as the worst storm, drought or earthquake.
The Sweeps Begin
After the election of 2016, immigrant activists began to prepare for massive immigration raids. Because of racist campaign slogans and the dehumanization of immigrants, some envisioned sweeps that would herd people into concentration camps to begin an industrial scale forced march to the border. Instead, we are seeing a systematic campaign in which the weapon of choice is a piece of paper known as the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification. The process is subtle and calculating, but no less inhumane.
The operation begins with the announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will conduct an I-9 inspection at worksites with large numbers of immigrant workers. Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler is a family-owned business founded by Jim Marderosian more than 30 years ago. The workers, who number more than 500, received a 72-hour notification on Feb. 1. The next day, dozens of workers did not show up for work. By the time of the inspection, 50–90 workers had abandoned their jobs.
When immigrant activists contacted Marderosian to express support for his company and the workers, they were informed that everything was okay and there was no need for alarm. In fact, by the end of the conversation the activists were told that the owner was negotiating with ICE and that no immediate action would be taken. In other words, the company will be allowed to get through the peak season, which ends in June or July.
But who is negotiating for the workers and their families? What assurances do hundreds of families have that they will not be be picked up by ICE in their workplace or their homes once the industry no longer needs them? In fact, ICE has shown no hesitation from picking up parents on their way to leaving their children at school. This has brought a cloud of uncertainty and despair over large parts of Fresno County, which will quickly spread throughout the Valley.
ICE Actions Continue
Since the I-9 inspections began on Feb. 6, ICE has expanded its efforts to include Wawona, Fowler Packing, Zacky Farms, Pitman Family Farms, Poindexter Nut Company and Fresh Select LLC. The largest employer so far is the Pitman poultry operation, which employs about 5,000 workers.
What is the end game for ICE and what is the position of agricultural employers? Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appeared recently at the World Ag Expo in Tulare and told ABC 30 News that “ICE are not after the people out here working on our farms.” So, is this just a ploy to scare people? If so, for what purpose?
Manuel Cunha, head of the Nisei Farmers League and a farm advocate, told the Fresno Bee, “This is no joke…This is really happening, and it is hurting our communities.”
In an interview with ABC 30 News, Cunha said the reality is that the Central Valley relies on immigrant labor, many of whom are undocumented and deserve immigration reform.
“I don’t care about the Russian deal. I could care less about that. I want Devin Nunes to focus on what is happening today in our Valley,” said Cunha. He is spearheading a drive involving about 68 California mayors including many from the Valley to ask for a meeting with President Trump.
California Citrus Mutual is the voice of the $3.3 billion citrus industry. President Joel Nelsen told the Hanford Sentinel that “conservative legislation that requires everyone be sent home to Mexico will not work for us…citrus harvest work is almost all by hand, and we have 10,000 to 12,000 mostly immigrant residents picking our fruit right now.”
He adds that “these workers are residents and key to our economy.”
California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said that “E-Verify to check eligibility would disqualify more than half the agricultural workforce.” (Hanford Sentinel, Feb. 8, 2018)
What Do Immigrant Workers and Advocates Say?
Leticia Valencia, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, told the Fresno Bee that ICE visits have many undocumented workers concerned. “People are not wanting to go to work,” she said, “because they are afraid that they may not come home to their families.”
One woman who did not want to be identified said that she has been here for 26 years and working at the same company for 13 of those years. She has a 27-year-old who qualified under DACA, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which President Trump decided would end on March 5, 2018.
She has other children who are U.S. citizens. She said, “I am afraid because I don’t have the documents to continue working.”
With their employment documents in the hands of ICE, her family is considering moving in case agents decide to go to their home. In fact, the I-9 statute states that any information attained by ICE during the investigation can be used against immigrant workers.
“The children are very concerned,” Valencia said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”
What about the Sanctuary State?
Advocates are disappointed with SB54, the “Sanctuary State” measure that prohibits authorities from sharing information with immigration authorities. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims regularly allows ICE access to the Fresno County Jail. In a recent case, a young man who suffered from severe mental illness was handed over to ICE while his mother waited in the lobby for his scheduled release. He has languished in an ICE deportation facility for months, awaiting a competency hearing.
AB450 can subject companies that share data with ICE or allow them to roam their operations to severe fines if the agents do not obtain a judicial order. The I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification process is exempt.
Members of the Central Valley Committee for Immigrants Rights reached out to local elected officials, including City Council President Esmeralda Soria, Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero and Congressional Representative Jim Costa. Only Soria called back to express her concern for the affected families.
Advocates spoke with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in person and were told that due to federal authority over immigration matters, all that his office could do was make sure that ICE adhered to the law.
In the face of this onslaught, the response of advocates can only be effective with widespread support from the non-immigrant community. Constituents should contact local elected officials with an emphasis on applying pressure on Congressional Representatives David Valadao (R–Hanford), Devin Nunes
(R–Tulare), Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield) and Jim Costa (D–Fresno).
Faith in the Valley has launched two ambitious but achievable endeavors: the Fresno Legal Defense Fund (FLDF) and Valley Watch. The FLDF is working to raise funds to pay for legal representation for immigrant families.
Valley Watch is maintaining a rapid response platform and network to mobilize the community when immigrant families are in immediate danger of deportation or need support as they negotiate complex and stressful immigration proceedings. For more information and to volunteer, contact info@ faithinthevalley.org.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at ssantos@cwa9408. org.