Recent federal immigration checks on area packing house have shaken the agricultural industry as workers have lost their jobs and owners have lost workers who have either been flagged for deportation or who have been too scared to show up at the workplace during the busy citrus industry.
While Congress attempts to jump into the immigration fray for a solution (including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) that has been elusive for decades, the repercussions are being felt in California, which declared itself a sanctuary state this year and forbid local law enforcement and other officials from enforcing federal immigration laws.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, blames the state’s policy for the visits by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.
“I believe it is retaliation and I know it is against California for being a sanctuary state, which we shouldn’t have gotten involved in,” Cunha said, adding the state shouldn’t protect criminals and should had allowed Homeland Security to work with the sheriff or police to get rid of the criminal that is in a jail or a prison.
“Homeland Security is doing these audits in retaliation because of what the state is trying to do, from everything, from the sanctuary city or state and the marijuana laws,” Cunha said.
Cunha said Homeland Security is not protecting the jobs of American citizens if those same citizens don’t want to the labor undocumented immigrants are willing to do and many U.S. citizens prefer to be in welfare than work on the fields.
“The United States has a third employer, and it’s called welfare,” he said.
ICE spokesperson James Schwab said worksite enforcement is nothing new and remains an ongoing priority for special agents with Homeland Security Investigations to ensure employers comply with federal laws.
Cunha, and others, aren’t holding their breath for Congress to come up with a solution. Congress, he noted, has failed in the last 27 years to deal with immigration reform at all levels.
“They kicked it down the road so they could get re-elected every two years as a congressman or six years as a senators or even the president,” Cunha said. “The only reform we ever had was when Ronald Reagan did it.”
About 68 mayors and other elected officials in California are signing a letter to advocate for the undocumented in California. The letter will be hand-delivered to Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s Washington, D.C. office, President Donald Trump and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who will be at the World Ag Expo in Tulare this week.
ICE agents served notices of inspection, also known as I-9 audit notices, from Jan. 29 to 31, to approximately 77 businesses across the San Francisco Field Office area which extends from the Bakersfield area north to the Oregon border, and also includes Hawaii, Saipan, and Guam. The form is used to verify the identity and legal authorization of the employee.
In the Central Valley, Cunha said that about 10 employers – from the Stockton area to Kern County – have received those ‘notice of inspection.’
Nineteen Valley businesses were targeted for ICE audits in 2011 and 2012, said Cunha, but only 10 were audited.
At that time, the businesses did not have to post the ICE audit notice until this year when AB 450 went into effect. The law requires employers to verify that immigration officials have a judicial warrant or a subpoena prior to entering the workplace. It also requires them to provide 72-hours’ notice to workers if there has been a request to review the company’s immigration documents.
“Six years later, they are going back to the (10) businesses that they (audited) the first time,” Cunha said.
Cunha said one company audited back in 2011-12 had to release more than 300 workers.
On Feb. 6, community members and immigration rights advocates gathered at Bee Sweet Citrus plant in Fowler for a press conference in support of immigrant workers and their families.
Workers at the plant were informed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was performing an worker eligibility audit.
According to The Fresno Bee, at least 40 workers out of nearly 500 at the Bee Sweet Citrus plant lost their jobs after ICE agents began doing the audits.
Jim Marderosion, president of Bee Sweet Citrus, told The Bee that his employees were aware of the audits and some of his employees decided not to return to work.
“The audit is the first step in targeting workers who do not have requisite documents for employment,” said Stan Santos, spokesperson for the Committee For Central Valley Immigration Rights
Santos said those workers “have sough to provide for their families while contributing their vital labor to the Central Valley economy.”
Santos said ICE action couldn’t come at a worse time for Bee Sweet Citrus as the company struggles to maintain production during the peak of the citrus season.
“Many of the affected employees have been with Bee Sweet Citrus for many years,” Santos said, adding that this could mean loss of employment and possible deportation for those who are flagged by ICE.
“This will lead to the separation of children from one or both parents as families with mixed citizenship must choose who leaves and who stays behind,” he said.
Other packinghouses affected by the ICE actions, according to Santos, include Pitman Farms in Sanger, Poindexter Farms in Selma/Kingsburg and Fowler Packing.
He said each of those companies has several hundred employees with large numbers of undocumented and are being subjected to I-9 employment authorizations inspections.
“The people don’t know what to do,” Santos said. “The companies are negotiating so they can get through the peak season. Nobody is negotiating on behalf of the people.”
“That is what we are trying to do,” Santos added.
Since any information discovered during the I-9 investigation can be used by federal officials, Santos said the fear is that ICE will use “their addresses to go pick them up.”
Cunha agreed with Santos about employees fear of ICE obtaining their home address through the I-9 audit.
“People may quit because of fear that (ICE) might go to their home,” said Cunha, adding that those workers will likely leave their home right away and move somewhere else to protect their families.
“No arrests were made during the latest operation,” said Schwab.
“If Homeland wants to retaliate against California because of sanctuary state, do it in Sacramento, do it at the capitol, but don’t do it to our businesses for what the state has done, it’s wrong,” Cunha said.
Romel Martínez Escárrega, with media and public relations at the Consulate of México in Fresno, said the consulate’s department of protection has not received any calls concerning Mexican nationals and the recent ICE agents visit to employers in the Central Valley.
“We remain in the disposition to solve all the doubts of the citizens who come to the Consulate to request the information of support in matters of Consular Protection,” Martínez Escárrega said.
“At the moment we continue working to provide the best information to our fellow citizens, without generating a panic environment,” said Martínez Escárrega, adding that the consulate has programs such as ‘Somos Mexicanos’ and is currently sharing information about the program, including on social media.
Martínez Escárrega said the program “provides support to all nationals who decide to return to México, from transporting all their belongings through a household move, to the border crossing and safe arrival to their destination.”
Martínez Escárrega said the consulate also offers an emergency hotline 24/7 at (559) 269-3026.