The Farmworker Fear

Increased ICE Raids Loom Over Undocumented Field Hands

<b>GROWING CONCERN:</b> With 25,000 employees at 1,600 farms across 700,000 acres, farmers are Santa Barbara County’s biggest economic contributor. It remains to be seen how Trump’s staunch position against undocumented immigrants will affect agriculture.
Paul Wellman

Trump’s rhetoric is strong and unequivocal — “Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to deportation,” according to the president-elect’s website — but it also runs up against his campaign promises to bolster the American economy, especially in terms of agricultural production.

In Santa Barbara County, where 700,000 acres of agriculture are the number one contributor to the economy — with a commodities gross of $1.49 billion in 2015 — nearly three-quarters of the estimated 17,000 farmworkers are undocumented. In the past 13 months in Santa Maria, agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — the law enforcement wing of the Department of Homeland Security — carried out two major “paper raids,” checking farmworker Social Security numbers against federal records.

The first, in December 2015, reportedly forced Adam Brothers Family Farma, co-owned by County Supervisor Peter Adam, to lay off roughly 300 fieldworkers, a number not denied by Adam in a previous interview. The second ICE raid, in March 2016, led to layoffs of 291 farmworkers with Bonita Packing Company, more commonly known as Bonipak.

These ICE audits typically occur in response to leads, tips, or complaints and can produce substantial first-offense fines of up to $3,200 for “hiring or continuing to employ” each worker not authorized to work in the United States, according to the agency’s website. Trump, in his “10 Point Plan to Put America First,” said he will “triple the number of ICE agents.”

Trump’s hard-line approach on immigration started the day he announced his candidacy and has remained at the top of his priorities. And while there’s no way to know for certain exactly how it’ll translate on the ground, “there’s a massive state of fear among farmworkers throughout the state right now,” according to Lucas Zucker, a policy and communications director with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

While CAUSE sometimes has a tense relationship with growers, the nonprofit — which focuses on social, economic, and environmental justice — does believe that immigration reform could provide a reliable workforce for farms and ranches, now experiencing a severe shortage countywide. Zucker said that Trump could choose to have his cake and eat it too by cracking down on undocumented immigrants while expanding the current H-2A visa program that sets up foreign laborers with seasonal work on farms in the U.S.

However, that guest worker program is considered deeply flawed, according to many who track it. Zucker explained that H-2A ought to allow farmworkers to switch employers, for example, and that there have been reports of human trafficking by recruiters. “With H-2A, there’s a lot of potential for abuse,” he said. “We would prefer real reform that leads to real citizenship, if that’s what [the farmworker] wants.”

“Real reform” is also on the mind of Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, an advocacy group for farmers in California, Arizona, and Colorado, with an office in Santa Maria. Western Growers endorsed Trump, and Nassif serves] on the president-elect’s advisory committee, where he spoke of issues critical to the fresh-produce industry in the West.

“I am confident [Trump] will be … attentive to our labor crisis,” Nassif said in a statement. “I believe the new administration will work to enact policies that ensure the viability of American food production without undermining [Trump’s] determination to secure the border and remove undocumented [criminals].”

“The truth is,” Nassif added, “[Trump] is aligned with agriculture on many issues, including the need to balance the regulatory climate. We seek the practical implementation of, and hopeful modifications to, the Endangered Species Act.”

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