Local farmers are apprehensive about what impacts recent immigration enforcement activity would have on labor throughout the region. Some predict a chilling effect that could discourage workers from heading to the fields and others brushing off recent detainments, saying they pale in comparison to what occurred under the Obama Administration.
United Farm Workers of America Foundation officials said they have been receiving reports from members this week of a heightened presence of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials throughout farming communities in Lamont, Arvin, Weedpatch and Taft, among other areas.
At least 24 people have been detained since Monday, many in farmworker communities, UFW Foundation officials confirmed.
While ICE officials acknowledged there’s been stepped-up enforcement, they said there’s been no at-large sweeps of communities and that their operations have been based on targeted investigations against individuals in the country illegally who have criminal backgrounds.
“ICE doesn’t conduct indiscriminate sweeps or set up checkpoints and we certainly don’t just stop random people on the street to check their immigration status. These rumors are false, irresponsible, and reckless. Our operations are targeted and lead driven,” ICE Spokesman James Schwab said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the reports have stoked fear throughout immigrant communities and some say it could impact farm labor.
“It could be quite severe. If workers are afraid to come to work, it could be critical,” said Mark Hall, an Arvin grape farmer who added that he hasn’t yet seen an impact or worrisome effect from the recent detainments.
His vineyards were just pruned, and with the rain, he has some lag time before the busy season will begin again, he said. But if workers aren’t available by harvest time, it could raise the cost of his produce, he said.
“We’re selling on supply-and-demand. Our labor is supply-and-demand, too. The demand is high for labor and if there’s not much labor available, then the cost of labor goes way up and our prices will go up,” Hall said. “Everything is supply-and-demand.”
Congressman David Valadao, R-Hanford, a dairy farmer by trade, said the stepped-up enforcement actions that have been impacting farmworkers is “further evidence Congress must come together to implement commonsense immigration reform.”
“I will continue closely monitoring this situation and will continue to work with my colleagues to advance a solution in Congress,” Valadao said in an emailed statement.
Likewise, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, described the current immigration system as “broken,” but acknowledged the critical need for an immigrant workforce in the agricultural industry.
“One area that I have been focused on is developing an agriculture guest worker program that works for California agriculture, which would enable our community and state’s farmers and dairy operators access to a reliable and legal labor force so they can continue to produce the food we all consume,” McCarthy said in an emailed statement.
He has stressed the workforce needs of the region’s farmers to Trump Administration officials several times, he said, “but clearly, individuals who are illegally in the U.S. and have committed crimes must be removed immediately, which is a top priority for the President that I agree with.”
The recent stepped-up enforcement actions have been disruptive to the labor market, said Bryan Little, director of employment policy at the California Farm Bureau.
“There’s no question about that. When I pick somebody up and they don’t show up for work, obviously you have a problem,” Little said, adding that he’s heard of no enforcement actions occurring on farms, but a couple of instances where ICE agents have performed audits on packing houses to ensure employees have documentation.
Still, he’s already fielding calls from asparagus and cherry farmers in northern California worried about whether there would be a strong workforce this year in light of recent enforcement.
“You might think workers would respond to what they’re seeing by laying low,” Little said. “It creates disruption for agricultural producers because you never know when your people are going to get picked up [by ICE agents], but it seems right now they’re not being picked up in large numbers at any one location.”
Farmers are generally unsure how much of their workforces are made up of individuals in the country illegally because so many secure field hands through farm labor contractors. Those contractors are the ones who carry workers compensation insurance, supply portable restrooms, train employees — and ensure everyone has proper documentation to work in the country.
The problem is there’s a thriving market for forgers creating fraudulent documents that fool most labor contractors, Little said.
“Nobody is foolish enough to hire an employee who can’t offer you documents because it’s a one-way-trip to federal prison,” Little said.
The fraudulent documents are so effective, Little said, that roughly 60- to 80-percent of the farm labor workforce is made up of individuals not authorized to be in the country legally.
“If you’re an undocumented immigrant, I think you’ll be anxious regardless, but this makes it even more anxious,” said Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, referring to the media attention recent enforcement actions have been gaining.
Unlike others, Sandoval is unsure what impact recent enforcement efforts will have on farm labor. He points to the volume of deportations that took place under President Barack Obama, who gained the moniker of “Deporter-in-Chief” from his critics for his quiet enforcement policies.
“I don’t think the deportation activity recently has been so large as to merit the kind of attention everybody is giving it,” Sandoval said.