Concerned farm owners and farmworkers strategize over immigration
As a long afternoon of work came to a close on a recent Wednesday, not a single table was taken inside Taqueria el Sol de Jalisco. Owner Ricardo Rojas walked out onto the sidewalk of Front Street, where a speaker sitting on a red metal bench softly played cumbia music. He stared out at the street as if trying to will a customer to appear.
Behind him, two signs handwritten in Spanish were taped to the bright white wall of his restaurant. Both were advertising jobs in the farm fields surrounding this tiny town in Tulare County, 240 miles south of Sacramento. Strands of paper with a phone number to call for work hung from one of the signs. None of the strands had been taken.
“Hay trabajo, pero no hay trabajadores,” Rojas said, or: “There is work, but there are no workers.”
Rojas said business at his restaurant has been cut in half over the past two months. Those customers who do come in often eat in their cars in case they need to make a quick getaway from immigration agents.
Fear is everywhere. The night before, the local school board became one of the first in California to declare its campuses a “safe haven” for students and families, meaning it won’t ask about students’ immigration status or allow federal immigration authorities onto school property.
That anxiety stretches throughout the southern San Joaquin Valley, among the most fertile and productive agricultural regions on Earth. As the spring picking season approaches, farmworkers are convinced the fields will be raided by federal agents intent on rounding up undocumented immigrants and shipping them back to Mexico or Central America. With many fearing the authorities will also set up checkpoints on the highways, the United Farm Workers union said the labor flow has already been cut in half at some farms.
“If they don’t need us here to work the fields, who’s going to do the work?” said a 54-year-old farmworker named Metorio, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and a father of three. The Sacramento Bee is only using his first name because he fears deportation.
“The workers who do this work are the Mexicans, the Latinos,” he said. “I hope President Trump will see how much the farmers need us.”
Despite their symbiotic relationship, farmworkers and farmers enter this debate from vastly different perspectives.
Farmers employ tens of thousands of people in the San Joaquin Valley and run a $35 billion industry producing grapes, milk, oranges, almonds and dozens of other commodities sold in stores around the globe. Many of them supported Donald Trump for president, calculating that his promise to deliver more water to drought-starved valley farms would help them despite his hard-line stance on immigration. Kern, Tulare and Kings counties all went Trump’s way by wide margins in the November election, even as less than one-third of California voters supported him.
Trump has said he is focused on purging the nation of undocumented immigrants who are a threat to public safety – “bad hombres,” as he described them during a presidential debate last year. Yet among those targeted for deportation under a Department of Homeland Security plan are those merely suspected of committing a crime or who “have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.”
For now, farmers said they are banking on Trump’s business background as evidence that, mindful of the potential risk to the economy and food prices, he won’t send immigration agents to valley farms. By some estimates, more than half of the estimated 800,000 farmworkers in California are undocumented immigrants.
“Everybody’s concerned, without question, but at the same time, most people know ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is not going to come in and raid a field,” said Tom Barcellos, a Tulare County dairy farmer and Trump supporter. “Trump has repeatedly said he’s more concerned about the criminal element of the illegals than he is of the hardworking illegals. He wants to clean that up first, then he wants to give opportunities to those who are hardworking, legitimate family people who are here to try to make a living.”
‘The land of opportunity’
The Barcellos family has been farming land outside Porterville, in Tulare County, since the 1930s. They’re among the better-known dairy farmers in the nation’s leading county for dairy production, managing a multimillion-dollar operation that generates more than 13,000 gallons of milk per day and sells it to Land O’Lakes to turn into cheese and butter.
The family’s 1,600 cows – some weighing up to a ton – stand in massive corrals on 1,200 acres, distinguishable to the untrained eye only by the numbers on the bright yellow tags attached to their ears.
On a clear late-winter day, fields of foot-high green wheat surrounded the Barcellos ranch, stretching toward the horizon in every direction. The occasional truck rumbled down a far-off country road, and birds chirped. The snow-capped Sierra Nevada loomed in the distance, less than an hour away by tractor.
“This is the land of opportunity – it kind of still is,” said Tom Barcellos, 61, who runs the family business.
This is the land of opportunity – it kind of still is.
Tom Barcellos, who runs the family business Barcellos Farms
Barcellos said he was one of about 15 farmers who met privately with Trump when the candidate stopped in Fresno last May. Barcellos said the farmers wanted to discuss two topics: how Trump planned deliver to more water to the region and how he intended to enforce immigration laws.
“He very pointedly said there’s going to be a wall, but that wall’s gonna have a door, without question,” Barcellos said. “Some farmers will have a hard time because workers will be scared off, but I just don’t believe (immigration raids) are going to happen. We’ll know soon enough.”
The region was still in a drought during the presidential campaign, and Trump promised more water. With that in mind, Barcellos said farmers were willing to risk losing a pivotal labor force.
“You have to roll the dice,” he said.
Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, said any potential hit to the labor supply caused by Trump’s immigration policies will be more gradual than abrupt. Martin said he agrees that the “scare stories” envisioning mass raids in the valley will not likely come to fruition. He said it would take a quick escalation – meaning large-scale raids this spring – to have an immediate impact on the prices consumers pay for farm goods.
“On one hand, if Trump rolls back regulations on water and pesticides, that will be welcomed (by farmers),” Martin said. “At the same time, if he started enforcing immigration laws so it abruptly disrupts the supply of labor, that will not be welcomed.”
About 30 miles north of the Barcellos ranch, Joe Russell oversees a 150-acre farm that, on a good day, can produce roughly 200,000 pounds of oranges. One clear, crisp morning earlier this month, about 35 pickers worked quickly and silently through rows of green citrus trees bursting with softball-sized oranges. They leaned ladders against the trees to grab oranges from the highest branches, dumped them into white bins designed to hold 900 pounds of fruit and moved down the line.
For Russell, 59, the president’s stand on water was important. But so was Trump’s tough talk on national security and his vow to renegotiate international trade deals to give American businesses – including farms – an advantage. California farms exported more than $20 billion worth of goods in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. A lot of produce is also imported from abroad, which some farmers complain is not held to the same standards as American-grown goods.
“It’s about putting Americans who eat our food first,” Russell said.
A large swath of the San Joaquin Valley is represented in Washington by David Valadao, a Republican who was elected to Congress in 2012 after serving one term in the state Assembly. Valadao is the son of immigrants from the Azores, and his family runs two dairies in the area.
Since arriving in Washington, Valadao has emerged as a leading voice in his party for immigration reform. He supports a path to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants and a more reliable guest worker program for farmers.
Valadao said he met recently with top Homeland Security officials and was assured agents would prioritize serious criminals for deportation.
“If that’s the goal, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “But if it gets to a point where they’re going after farmworkers, that would cause a lot of concern.”
Despite his conservative political views and loyalty to Trump, Barcellos feels compassion for the area’s undocumented immigrants. Like many other farmers in the Central Valley, he is also the son of an immigrant from the Azores Islands. While he said he does not believe he employs undocumented workers today, he’s sure he has in the past.
“You have to get the cows milked; you have to feed the world,” Barcellos said. “Imagine if we cut all the undocumented workers off, imagine what would happen. It would be devastating. It won’t affect me as much as it will affect you and your food prices at the store because of the food that didn’t get there.”
He said he hopes that Trump, as an experienced businessman, will spearhead the kind of immigration reform that has eluded Washington policymakers for years. He and other farmers said the application process for the current visa program for foreign farmworkers takes too long – sometimes weeks or more – meaning farmers who need an immediate influx of labor to tend crops are forced to use whatever workers are available, documented or not.
In fiscal year 2016, more than 134,000 foreign nationals were issued H-2A visas for seasonal agricultural work, a number that has more than doubled in the last four years, according to the U.S. State Department. Traditionally, the vast majority of the visas are issued to workers from Mexico.
Asked what he would say to Trump if given 30 seconds, Barcellos didn’t hesitate.
“I’d tell him: ‘We need a legitimate work visa program that will give every illegal immigrant who, if they’re a hardworking family person, it will put their mind at ease.’ ”
Fear in the fields
Out in the fields, farmworkers said they believe raids are inevitable. And if they do come, the impact could be severe. According to the latest census figures, more than 180,000 people in the region were born in Latin America and are not U.S. citizens.
Front Street in Earlimart, a dusty lane wedged between the trucks roaring down Highway 99 and a busy freight rail track, resembles a small Mexican village. Stores painted bright colors sell international calling cards, piñatas and tostadas. A man goes door to door trying to sell bags of oranges.
More than 91 percent of the 8,700 residents of this town are Latino, according to census figures, mirroring the demographics in many of the region’s small farming villages. In February, when activist groups around the nation observed “A Day Without Immigrants” to protest Trump’s enforcement actions, about half the students in the Earlimart school district were absent, said Abigail Solis, the school board president.
“There’s a sense of stress in the community, from students and families,” Solis said. “We have parents saying, ‘I can’t send my kids to school because immigration (agents) will be there.’ They’re hearing things from different directions and they don’t know what to believe.”
Farmworker fears – and labor shortages – are not new in California.
President Barack Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than any president in history and, in recent years, a greater number of Mexican immigrants were leaving the United States than coming here. A guest worker visa system criticized by some farmers for being too cumbersome has slowed the flow of seasonal help, critics said.
Martin, the UC Davis professor, said the annual migration of workers from one part of the state to another has also slowed and the population of farmworkers is rapidly aging.
Under Trump, however, even those migrants granted reprieve during the Obama administration feel at risk.
Juan Carlos Vieyra Navarro, 28, will return to picking grapes in the fields near Delano next month. Until then, he’s enrolled as a full-time student at California State University, Bakersfield, where he’s earning his teaching credential. He said he expects to graduate in December and wants to teach Spanish in a public high school in the area.
Navarro was 7 when his parents brought him across the border from Mexico illegally. While his parents have since returned to their native country, Navarro is living here under the protection of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a policy enacted by the Obama administration that allows some children brought here illegally to avoid deportation.
Navarro said he earns $420 a week picking grapes and has been working in the fields to pay for most of his college education since he graduated from high school. He makes just above minimum wage, similar to what farmers say they pay their laborers.
It is meticulous work, caring for the fragile vines and fruit, and requires Navarro’s full concentration. He said he expects his focus to lapse this growing season. Trump has said he does not intend to repeal DACA and deport people such as Navarro. But neither that promise – nor the president’s vows to prioritize serious criminals for deportation – mean much to Navarro.
“I’m still afraid,” he said. “I’ve been afraid since the election.”
I’ve been afraid since the election.
Juan Carlos Vieyra Navarro, an undocumented student living in California as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrests program
Solis said an unusually large crowd of parents attended the meeting where the school board declared the district a safe haven from immigration enforcement. The vote took place a few days after the Sacramento City Unified School District passed a similar measure.
Solis estimated that 75 percent of the 2,000 students in the Earlimart district have at least one parent working on a farm. She said her tiny town is at its busiest in the hours before dawn, when fathers and mothers leave their homes and head to the fields for 10 hours of grueling labor.
“To me, that’s not a criminal,” Solis said.
The sun was setting in the fields and about a dozen farmworkers filed into a long, narrow building outside Delano with brick walls and a mission-style tile roof. They settled into a cool, well-lit conference room with bare white walls and an open box of cookies sitting on a table in the corner. This was the Forty Acres complex that served as the birthplace for the organized farmworker movement.
Cesar Chavez came here to help plan the Delano grape strike of the 1960s, which led to a groundbreaking work contract and ensured better workplace protections for farmworkers. The compound was designated a national landmark in 2008, and a framed photograph of Obama signing a proclamation in 2010 naming March 31 Cesar Chavez Day hangs in the lobby.
The farmworkers were gathered at Forty Acres on this night to organize once again. This time, their target was Trump. Led by a national vice president of the UFW, the workers planned an April 2 march in Delano under the banner “Trump: Quién Alimentará America?” or “Trump: Who Will Feed America?”
Metorio, the undocumented immigrant from Mexico, sat at the table with his fellow farmworkers, quietly rehearsing lines for a Facebook video the union was producing to recruit marchers. He has been working in the California fields for 20 years, the last 15 picking grapes near Delano.
“I can pick and plant it all: mandarins, grapes, all vegetables and fruit,” he said in Spanish. “I love working here.”
Metorio has three children born in Mexico who are living in the United States legally under the DACA program. He owns his home, doesn’t have a criminal record and doesn’t drink alcohol.
Recent moves by the federal government make him feel targeted and afraid, he said. But he remains undeterred. The work won’t stop, at least for him.
“If I hear that other workers have been taken from the other farms,” he said, “I’ll still go to work.”