Politics & Government

California farmworker families await Supreme Court immigration ruling

California farmworkers, family members and supporters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as justices take up a key immigration case that could affect thousands of California farm families.
California farmworkers, family members and supporters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday as justices take up a key immigration case that could affect thousands of California farm families. United Farm Workers Foundation

UC Davis student Lizbeth Cuevas stood outside the highest court in the land on Monday as the Supreme Court examined whether President Barack Obama can protect as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

Excited and anxious, Cuevas showed up in Washington, D.C., on behalf of two of those people: her parents, both farmworkers in California.

“My drive and my motivation and my work ethic come from my parents,” said Cuevas, 24, by telephone. She’s due to graduate from UC Davis in June with a degree in human development and has aspirations to work in education, mental health or immigration policy.

Acting on a legal challenge brought by 26 states, the high court is deciding whether parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents can legally stay in the United States and obtain work permits under an executive order signed by Obama. Cuevas appeared outside the court as part of a chanting crowd of farmworker families from California with the hope that her hard-toiling parents will be allowed to stay.

Cuevas’ mother and father will be in the clear if the court upholds Obama’s program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. They became eligible for the program because their youngest child, Cueva’s 13-year-old brother, Carlos, is a U.S.-born citizen.

Lizbeth Cuevas, who arrived in California from Michoacán, Mexico, as a small child, was able to work and go to college under a previous Obama executive action, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. She said in a telephone interview from outside the court: “I don’t want anything more than for my parents to have the same opportunities, to not have the fear of being deported.”

Cuevas said her 44-year-old dad was a farmworker in California for 25 years, harvesting lemons, peaches, grapes, strawberries and cherries from Oxnard to Stockton before finding employment in construction. Her mother has moved from farm work to house cleaning. Cuevas doesn’t want their names publicized until they can emerge from the shadows without fear of deportation.

“There is a lot of emotion, a lot of excitement,” she said about the Supreme Court taking up the case.

Obama’s DAPA action has been blocked by a federal district court in Texas as well as the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

As a result, Sacramento immigration lawyer Marien Sorensen said many families that stand to benefit under the Obama executive order are gripped with “anxiety and fear.”

“There is anxiety because time is running out,” Sorensen said. “Obama is on his way out of office. So there is fear, even if there is a positive decision from the court, that there won’t be time to implement” the Obama order. “We don’t know who the next president will be, and there is so much anti-immigrant rhetoric from particular candidates.”

Outside the Supreme Court, Alvaro Martinez, a 28-year-old farmworker from McFarland, said he and his farmworker wife hope for a ruling that will let them stay in California with their American-born daughter, Zuleykha Martinez, 5.

Martinez earns $9 to $10 an hour picking tangerines, grapes, almonds and blueberries in California. He hopes to be able to legally travel back and forth from Mexico so he can visit his father, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years.

“The president has done a good thing for farmworkers,” Martinez said of the Obama order. “It won’t just benefit me, but thousands of farmworkers. It will give us security and a chance to help our children here and our parents there.”

Also traveling to Washington as part of the gathering organized by the United Farm Workers was Adrian Barajas, 19, of Bakersfield. A U.S.-born citizen, Barajas used to work in the fields. Now he is planning to go to Bakersfield College and then San Diego State University to study economics.

Barajas’ father, Marcelino Barajas, 45, was deported to Mexico a decade ago after being picked up on unpaid traffic tickets. Now the younger Barajas hopes his mom, Maria, 42, an unauthorized immigrant who harvests grapes and prunes vines in Kern County vineyards, can visit her husband in Mexico and also stay in California to see her oldest son succeed.

“I have faith,” said Adrian Barajas, who has three younger siblings, all U.S. citizens.

He said his mom was proud that he went to the rally outside the Supreme Court – but didn’t want to be there herself.

“She was afraid of being deported,” he said.