In the midst of a severe farmworker shortage in Santa Barbara County, hundreds of undocumented workers have been laid off in Santa Maria as the result of Homeland Security investigations. This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents ordered Bonita Packing Company to terminate 291 farmworkers with invalid Social Security numbers. In December, virtually the same thing happened at Adam Brothers Family Farm — co-owned by County Supervisor Peter Adam — displacing a majority of their total workforce.
“Last week was not a good week for us,” said Mitch Ardantz, managing partner at Bonita Packing Company, better known as Bonipak, which employs anywhere from 300-500 workers. “I had to look across the table from them and tell them they no longer had a job.”
Matilde Luna was one of those workers. Luna, who has four kids and made $10.50 an hour, has worked in area fields for 25 years and at Bonipak (which merged with Betteravia Farms) for 11 years. She received health benefits and had a retirement account. Last week, she was among those called into the office and given until March 4 to produce citizenship documents. If she could not, she had to sign a letter of resignation in English, she said.
It is no secret that many workers in agriculture — among other industries — do not have legal status and provide fake eligibility verification documents known as I-9 forms. In fact, the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, also known as CAUSE, estimated that 72 percent of the roughly 17,000 farmworkers in Santa Barbara County are undocumented.
ICE audits are relatively unheard of in Santa Barbara County. They occur in response to leads, tips, or complaints. ICE worksite enforcement agents inspect the I-9 forms growers have on file and check to see if their Social Security numbers match federal records. In the Adam Brothers case, a disgruntled employee reportedly made a complaint to ICE after she was fired following a workplace dispute. Nationwide, ICE agents conducted 1,242 audits last fiscal year; of those, Homeland Security obtained 190 indictments and 167 convictions in worksite-related cases.
In a previous interview, Adam confirmed that a number of layoffs occurred. Rumors abound that as many as 300 workers were let go right before Christmas. When asked, Adam did not deny that figure. “We didn’t have any choice in that matter,” he said two months ago. Homeland Security stated the audit was due to an active criminal investigation of Adam Brothers. According to ICE’s website, fines for the first offense range from $375-$3,200 for “hiring or continuing to employ” each worker not authorized to work in the United States. Fines increase eightfold for the second offense.
The layoffs come at a time when there is a 25 percent farmworker shortage — resulting in a loss of an estimated $11 million worth of unpicked crops. “Our major farmers are between a rock and a hard place,” said Scott Fina, a Santa Maria resident who participated in the mass protests against the construction of the ICE facility in Santa Maria in 2014.
Andy Caldwell, who represents COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business), argued the issue demonstrates the need for a guest-worker program. “What did ICE accomplish?” he asked. “Those guys just go out and get another job at another farm.” In fact, it is possible that farmworkers could get a job at the same farm if they are rehired by a contractor.
Many theories exist about what is causing the shortage. Dennis Apel, a longtime Catholic worker and Vandenberg Air Force Base activist, noted security at the border has tightened in the past eight to 10 years. Second, he said, a shift in crops to strawberries is more labor intensive. Caldwell noted developments in processing storage allow growers to store and ship all year long.
Caldwell called for a guest-worker visa program—much like the Bracero Program enacted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Workers could stay year-round; employers would provide housing and transportation, he said. Currently, few growers use the H-2A workers, a program that allows workers to stay for anywhere from two to nine months. (Last May, a low-income apartment complex was converted to farmworker housing for H-2A workers.)
Santa Maria City Council member Terri Zuniga — who voted against the ICE facility — said she supports H-2A, but noted she is concerned such workers are not vested in the community. The permanent workforce — in the country legally or illegally — provides a significant tax base, she noted. Interestingly, she added, growers stood by their workers and also came out against the construction of the ICE facility.
It’s worth noting that the ICE facility does not handle worksite visits. In fact, one woman showed up asking to be deported so she would be reunited with her husband in Honduras. But the officials declined and called CAUSE, asking for assistance to set her up with the Honduran consulate.
For Apel, growers should be going further. “They should be putting their arms around them and saying, ‘Don’t bad-mouth my workers,’” he said. “They should be saying, ‘We want them and we love them.’”
Asked how he felt about Donald Trump’s diatribe against immigrants, Bonipak’s Ardantz said, “All I can say is these are people who’ve been with us for a very long time. How do you think that makes us feel?”