The in-between status of workers who help feed the U.S. has been a travesty for decades. And it's only getting worse.
— Jason Clampet
Maria’s husband spent the past 15 years pruning citrus trees on farms across California’s Central Valley. In that time, he’d become skilled enough to earn more than the state’s $11-an-hour minimum wage trimming branches for Sun Pacific, the company that brings the Cuties brand of mandarin oranges to grocers and tables across the U.S.
After dropping off his kids at school Monday in Porterville, the father of five, who’d been arrested in 2014 for driving under the influence, was pulled over and detained by federal agents. The arrest was one of hundreds in a flurry of raids this week across the state as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
The conflict peaked politically this week after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warned residents on Saturday of an imminent sting, giving those without papers time to evade the sweeps. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had arrested 232 individuals over a four-day operation through Wednesday who were in violation of federal immigration laws, of which 115 had prior felony convictions.
Thomas Homan, the agency’s acting director, estimated earlier this week that more than 800 “criminal aliens” remained at large in the Bay Area and blamed the mayor in part for some of those misses, likening her warnings to “a gang lookout yelling ‘police.”’ The enforcement action is a direct response to California’s sanctuary policies, in which local agencies don’t cooperate with immigration enforcement.
“It’s outrageous that a mayor would circumvent federal authorities and certainly put them in danger by making a move such as that,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in a briefing Thursday.
Schaaf blasted the agency and Trump administration’s immigration policy as racist.
Both Trump’s opponents and some Trump supporters in California can agree on one thing: raids are bad for business. Reports of sweeps and high-profile detentions are terrifying the state’s undocumented population — estimated at 2.6 million in 2015 — who are scared to leave their homes.
Their absence threatens segments of the largest state economy, including retailers, restaurants and the Central Valley’s $47 billion agricultural industry, which provides more than half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables in the country. That broad, 450-mile swath of California yields an eighth of the country’s agricultural output.
The farm industry is already struggling to find workers like Maria’s husband. More than 55 percent of 762 farmers and ranchers surveyed in a California Farm Bureau Federation report from October 2017 said half of their land continues to go unattended because of an ongoing labor shortage directly related to U.S. immigration policy.
Of the state’s more than 2 million farm laborers, 1.5 million are undocumented, according to Tom Nassif, President of the Western Growers Association, a 92-year-old industry group representing farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Although Nassif and the association have supported Trump since the early days of his campaign, he says the raids and decades-old immigration policy for farm workers are harming the industry and state economy.
“We know that a majority of our workers have presented false documents in order to gain employment, so (the raids) are always a concern to us, especially at a time when we have significant labor shortages and no hope that the federal government is going to pass legislation which allows us to have a legal workforce,” Nassif said. “We’re not so much married to a particular proposal. We just have to have protections for our existing workforce.”
James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE, declined to comment on Nassif’s assertions.
Maria declined to share her full name or her husband’s for this story, citing concerns ICE agents will find her and send her to the same jail in Bakersfield where her husband is waiting to be deported to Mexico. Maria has three school-aged children, a four-year-old with cerebral palsy and an infant.
“I tell my kids that their father was taken away because he’s Mexican and President Trump doesn’t want us here,” said Maria, whose family is now living without a father, income or savings while she searches for an attorney to take her husband’s case for free.
Congress is currently mulling a proposal to amend its seasonal workers’ visa program by capping the number it issues every year at 410,000. The legislation would attempt to force all undocumented workers to return to their native countries and apply for visas. Only a fraction of those who apply would be allowed to return.
In effect, that would would be a prohibition on undocumented labor that would paralyze California’s agriculture industry, said Nassif, which is already losing acres of labor-intensive crops, including cherries, apples, peppers and berries to farms in Mexico, South and Central America and East Asia. After setting records for revenue every year in the six years to 2015, receipts fell 13 percent to $47 billion in 2016 because of “the ongoing drought and shifting market conditions,” according to Karen Ross, Secretary of California’s Department of Food and Agriculture.
The most significant “market condition” is the labor shortage, said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America union, a problem that will get worse as long as Trump’s ICE continues to target California.
For every employee who’s detained — from a farm, restaurant or California meatpacking plant — dozens of others become fearful of returning to work. Employees across the state are quitting their jobs on the spot when informed that their employers have received federal audit forms requiring them to produce employee work authorization papers. A dozen of the 35 employees at Ruby’s Diner in Commerce, California, east of Los Angeles, quit on Feb. 15 when ICE dropped by the restaurant with the audit form. ICE never returned, as they promised, on Feb. 22.
“This is retaliation from an administration hostile to immigrants,” said David Huerta, President of the Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West. “Fruit is going to die on the vine this year because of this administration. This government does not understand the contribution of immigrant labor to whole industries, and their failure to see that will have its consequences.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.