At least two dozen undocumented people in Kern County, many of them farmworkers, have been detained and marked for deportation proceedings by federal immigration agents this week as they carry out what appears to be a days-long regional enforcement operation, sources confirmed to The Californian Thursday.
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials would not confirm or deny whether they are operating in Kern County, however the Bakersfield-based United Farm Workers of America has received reports that at least 24 people have been detained during pre-dawn busts while on their way to the fields, said UFW Foundation Communications Specialist Leydy Rangel. The organization has documented scores more outside of Kern in the Central Valley.
“They’re picking up our people when we’re going to work,” Rangel said. “When are you safe? It’s not only a worry about coming home at night, but am I going to make it to work today in the first place?”
Those detainments come as federal immigration officials crack down on California, launching widespread enforcement operations from Los Angeles to San Francisco that have netted hundreds of arrests. In the Bay Area this week, agents arrested more than 150 undocumented immigrants — roughly half of whom had criminal convictions, ICE Spokesman James Schwab said in a written statement. ICE agents detained more than 100 people in Los Angeles in mid-February, according to multiple reports.
Those types of targeted enforcement operations, coupled with local reports of a heightened ICE presence in heavily-Latino communities since at least Monday morning, has stoked fears. UFW officials confirmed there have been detainments and ICE sightings in Taft, Arvin, Wasco, Porterville, Lamont and Weedpatch.
ICE officials, however, say that the operations being conducted across the state are being forced by uncooperative policies in California, which bar federal agents from entering jails to take undocumented immigrants into custody.
“ICE has no choice but to continue to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community,” ICE Spokesman James Schwab said in a statement.
Some individuals detained perhaps were not targeted by ICE, but were swept up in enforcement because they didn’t know their rights, said Erica Lomeli, civic participation and policy director with the UFW foundation. In at least one case, a group of farmworkers who stopped for coffee on their way to work spotted an ICE agent across the street and began to flee the area. That agent detained two people, Lomeli said.
“It’s stressful,” Lomeli said. “It’s nerve wracking.”
One undocumented woman in Arvin who refused to be identified out of fear of deportation hid behind her curtains while recording a video of what appeared to be an unmarked patrol vehicle on her street, its lights flashing.
“She called one of our members and said she couldn’t take her daughter to school because she was going to remain inside her house,” said Gabby Fernandez, a community organizer with the Dolores Huerta Foundation who works in the area on immigration issues.
Fernandez said she’s heard reports from community members of ICE agents setting up pre-dawn checkpoints on Highway 223, the main artery between the farmworker communities of Lamont and Arvin, where they’ve captured fieldhands on their way to work.
In Taft, a group of five farmworkers were stopped on their way to work by an unmarked SUV. The driver had documentation, but the rest didn’t and were detained, said Lomeli, whose organization interviewed the driver about the incident.
Win Eaton, a prominent Bakersfield immigration lawyer said he’s also heard reports of what he describes as “random community racial profiling.”
One man, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, was pulled over by an ICE agent in an unmarked patrol car Wednesday evening, Eaton said. He was asked for his identification, which he provided, then the agent asked if he had “picked up any farmworkers today,” Eaton said. His passenger, another U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, wasn’t carrying his license and was detained before being released, Eaton said.
“Everyone just feels a lot of fear and a lot of panic. We know these raids have been happening the last four or five days and they’ve been in areas where it’s very Latino-oriented. It’s very scary for some people because they don’t know what’s going on,” Fernandez said.
Organizers at the UFW and Dolores Huerta Foundation have been creating rapid-response units, heading to the fields early in the morning this week to assist workers finding legal representation, hosting community forums educating undocumented immigrants on their rights and keeping track of deportations underway.
Meanwhile, Clinica Sierra Vista, one of the region's largest Federally Qualified Healthcare Centers, issued a statement Thursday evening encouraging patients to not forego appointments, but to "proceed from their homes to the clinics with extreme caution, especially in our rural communities, where ICE checkpoints have been reported."
The organization fielded several calls this week from patients worried about rumors of ICE agents stationed outside clinics in Lamont and Weedpatch — something Clinica Sierra Vista officials said was erroneous.
DHF and the UFW are also urging people to shoot cellphone videos and pictures of ICE agents they see so that widespread warnings can be issued to the community. Federal immigration officials eschewed a similar warning this week when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a warning of ICE raids to residents, something U.S. ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan described as a “reckless decision” that put his officers at risk.
The arrests underscore a political battle brewing between California — which has proclaimed itself a “sanctuary state,” — and ICE, which under the Trump Administration has been given greater discretion than ever before to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.
“California is being punished because of the Sanctuary State Act,” Eaton said, adding that the state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year has been widely misunderstood. The law prohibits state and local law enforcement from questioning or detaining people, or sharing information about them with federal ICE agents unless they had been convicted a serious crime.
“It’s not a matter of protecting people who are a danger to California. It’s a matter of keeping families together and preserving the human dignity that every human being deserves,” Eaton said.
Homan told Fox news in January that his agency would “significantly increase” its presence in California because of the sanctuary state law.
“They are about to see a lot more special agents — a lot more deportation officers,” Homan said.
Local immigration detainments are made possible, Eaton said, by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security memorandum that allows agents “full authority to arrest or apprehend an alien whom an immigration officer has probable cause to believe is in violation of the immigration laws.”
“That crosses in and gives full authority to racial profiling,” Eaton said, describing individual agent’s powers now as “unlimited” under the current directives.