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Trump’s Tightening Immigration Policies Threaten Valley Ag

We’re standing in the middle of 350 acres of table grapes just outside of Selma. Soon they’ll be on tables everywhere. Water drips down on the roots of the vines to keep them hydrated in the sweltering heat.

The shade of the grapevine arches keep a person, we’ll call Bob, cool. He’s a grower and labor contractor. He agreed to talk to Valley Public Radio anonymously because he fears being vocal could spur a visit from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Bob says he’s seen how the recent tightening on immigration policies has affected his workers and other growers.

“It’s affecting it by the people being scared to come to work,” he says. “They’re afraid to get on the road. They’re afraid to come out here. They’re afraid to get pulled over. I mean they’ve got children, you know?”

President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy has been affecting more than just border communities. In the San Joaquin Valley, the agriculture business is taking the blow, an industry many economies depend on.

Specifically, Bob says he fears an I-9 inspection.

“Not only do you turn in the I-9’s, but now ICE has their residence and that’s what they ask for in an I-9 when you fill it out,” he says. “They want your physical address, they don’t want where you get your mail or P.O Box. They want your physical address.”

The government has been doing I-9 inspections since the 1980s. They require employers to turn over all their I-9 forms, which contain personal information, including social security numbers. Within the last year, I-9 inspections have picked up. According to data from ICE, there have been nearly 400 more administrative arrests this fiscal year than the year prior.

Although Bob hasn’t been hit by an inspection yet, he says it could be devastating to ag businesses. He says threats of an audit can cause workers to pick up and leave. Growers might not have enough labor to harvest and workers risk being deported.

“One of my biggest worries is I have a lot of great people, hard workers, you know, they’re great for the community, and I just don’t want them to lose what they have here,” says Bob. “We have a lot of people, I have workers here that have been with me for 20 something years.”

About 60 to 70 percent of Bob’s workers were born outside of the country, he says, one being, Carmen Gaspar. The 36-year-old says she crossed the border with her family when she was 8-years-old. She came from Mexico with her mom, seven brothers, and sisters.

At the time, Gaspar says her youngest sibling was 1 and the oldest only 10. It was “terrible,” she says. They walked through deserts for two days, had no food or water and Gaspar says she felt like they’d never get here.

Ever since she arrived in the U.S, Gaspar says, she’s lived in Tulare County and since she was 18 she’s worked on vineyards.

“I started at the bottom like all workers,” Gaspar says in Spanish. “Little by little I got opportunities to move up a little more and now I bring in workers to help us.”

Gaspar says her family couldn’t afford to live in Mexico on her father’s wages and came to the U.S in search of opportunities. For the most part, she says, they’ve found that.

Like many of her siblings, Gaspar says she’s built a life here. She’s married, has three kids and is currently a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. But even though this country has helped her, with the current immigration policies, some of her family members still live in fear.

“This country has opened doors for us, but also sometimes it’s sad,” she says. “Because for example, my husband doesn’t have papers and with everything that’s happened, and if he is deported and my kids are here, that’s sad.”

President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy has put stress on many farming families, says Gaspar. She says there’s a feeling of hopelessness among people.

“The president we have right now has strict rules,” says Gaspar. “We hope that here in California that doesn’t happen, that people come and are taken because what are we going to do? We don’t know what to do because our kids are from here and we’re from there, what do we do?”

Manuel Cuhna, president of the Nisei Farmers League, which aims to keep San Joaquin Valley agriculture workers up to speed with policies that may affect them, says the zero-tolerance policy has had severe impacts.

“The amount of people leaving because of the audits is prevalent,” says Cuhna. “But also leaving is to go down and take care of their cousin, the nephew, the family members at the border to see what they can do to get them out of those camps to see where they can get them out of those children detainer centers over the past several years.”

In mid-June, Cuhna says he received calls from farmworkers in the Valley asking him what they should do about their kids who have been detained at the border. Cuhna says he warned those undocumented not to go to the border.

“That fear of not knowing but going down there to protect your family or your grandmother who sent the kids or uncles or whatever it is, there at that border and they have no idea what’s happening,” says Cuhna. “People here are going there to help, but when they go there to help they find themselves in more trouble because of their status.”

Some farmers in the San Joaquin Valley say the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy isn’t to blame. Stephen Patricio, president of West Side Produce, says every administration in the past 30 years has failed to fix immigration policies that have always impacted agriculture.

“I’ve been deeply embroiled in this world since 1975,” says Patricio. “This world of ag immigration problems. I’ve gotten excited about pieces of things. I’ve gotten excited about certain prospects. I’ve gotten excited about what I think are good things and I’ve gotten excited about things I think are terribly bad. But, I’ve watched the same ones come and go and the decisions at the end of the day, people suffer.”

The number of farmworkers continues to decline, Patricio says, but it’s been constant over three decades. He doesn’t blame that on Trump's policies but on the unwillingness of politicians to solve problems. He says the most pressing issue today is the change in population.

“Immigrants have always been the ones who create our food supply,” he says. “And don’t fool yourself, even the best farmworker does not raise his child to be a farmworker. They all hope for a greater life, a better life, educated in some other form of society.”

Patricio says he doesn’t have all the answers to immigration reform, but in his view, the current policies are no better or worse than what people have been dealing with for years.

Gaspar says her family is finding ways to become legal citizens, but it’s a slow process. In the meantime, immigration policies and proposals are changing. Some proposals help people in her community, Gaspar says, and some don’t. 

All Gaspar says she can do is take it one day at a time, keep moving forward and wait to see what happens. She says she hopes the Trump administration will come up with policies that help immigrants like her. 

Monica Velez was a reporter at Valley Public Radio. She started out as a print reporter covering health issues in Merced County at the Merced Sun-Star.