Wine country fires flush undocumented workers to Sonoma Coast, fearful of deportation

Jerry Brown: ‘We haven’t seen anything like this in Northern California’

Gov. Jerry Brown gives an update on the California wildfires at an event in Sacramento on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2017.
Up Next
Gov. Jerry Brown gives an update on the California wildfires at an event in Sacramento on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2017.

In early morning hours Monday, as fires swept through eastern Sonoma County, a convoy of headlights streamed into the coastal burg of Bodega Bay, including dozens of undocumented immigrant workers and their families, afraid to stop at the emergency shelters for fear they might be detained and deported.

Some slept on the beach that night. Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins headed out to check it out.

“I saw dozens of families,” she said. “There are traumatized. They lost homes. It’s cold out there. But they are afraid they will be targeted by ICE (federal immigrations officials) if they go to shelters.”

Hopkins and others in Sonoma County are organizing to help undocumented workers, who likely will not be eligible for federal emergency management funding. The initial message, she said, is that anyone displaced in the fires can go to emergency shelters and will not be asked to confirm their legal status.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano backed that up on Wednesday, calling the deportation fear “a bad rumor.”

“There’s a rumor out there that people are checking immigration status in shelters, and that is not true,” he said. “Shelters are asking for names because they want to identify the people that are coming into the shelter. Immigration status will never be asked of you, and they just want to identify the people who are coming into the shelter.”

Activist Herman Hernandez, who is helping coordinate evacuation center activity in Sonoma County, said some undocumented immigrants have in fact been showing up at shelters and have gotten services. Many shelters now have Spanish-speaking translators helping out.

But Hernandez said he too has heard of others who have lost their homes, yet are leery of coming to places where uniformed National Guard members are stationed.

The issue is throwing a spotlight on the frayed relationship between government and undocumented workers, many of whom work in Sonoma and Napa vineyards, as well as the tourism and hospitality industry.

Both the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County leaders earlier this year formally announced that they support undocumented workers, saying they want to help insulate their workforce from the aggressive deportation policies of the Trump administration.

But both of the local governments notably stopped short of labeling their jurisdictions as “sanctuaries,” saying they were fearful that formal title could cause them to lose federal funding.

Instead, Santa Rosa declared itself an “indivisible city” while the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution stating its “commitment to the rights of all our residents, including those that are undocumented.”

One county official, at the time, estimated there are 20,000 undocumented immigrants in Sonoma.

Officials said they are making progress getting word out that shelters are safe. The Red Cross and local volunteers in Bodega Bay are assisting people with food and shelter.

But officials say a bigger challenge may be ahead for undocumented families. Law enforcement officials will be asking for some form of identification in some areas when roads are opened to allow evacuees back to their homes. Santa Rosa activist Omar Medina said evacuees won’t have to show a government ID card. They may just be able to show a utility bill with an address on it.

Longer term, federal emergency aid likely will not be available to undocumented people. County officials say they have begun discussions with nonprofits and other grass-roots activists on how to organize a recovery effort.

“We are going to have to step up locally,” Supervisor Hopkins said. “They are the backbone of our economy. They unfortunately are sometimes taken for granted.”

Devastating wildfires in Northern California and the wine country that are becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history leave lives lost, towns evacuated, residents displaced.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Related stories from Sacramento Bee