Kern County is known for Big Agriculture and traditionally leans to the right. Many of the farmers there support Donald Trump. But when it comes to immigration—one of the President's signature themes—not all the farmers there line up behind him.
Tom Frantz is a fourth-generation almond farmer in Shafter, California. It’s a small town of 16,000 people— just up the road from Bakersfield. Fields in the area grow almonds, pistachios, cotton, grapes and alfalfa.
Frantz relies on a local contractor to provide the workers he needs to tend his farm.
“And he’ll bring maybe 20 people to show up and they all have the equipment they need,” Frantz says.
He explains to the contractor what the job entails, whether it’s heavy or lighter pruning, what to do with the branches, and how to lay them out. But Frantz says he does not get involved with the paperwork.
“When he sends me the bill he gives me the name of every worker and their social security number and from that I’m supposed to assume that everyone is legal,” he says. “And I’m not required to check each person myself.”
When asked what he thinks of President Trump’s harsh rhetoric and clamp down on immigration across the US-Mexico border, he says it’s leading to a decline in farmworkers.
“A shortage of workers can put someone out of business real fast if you don't have the people to do the job,” Frantz says.
This 71-year-old almond farmer in Shafter says he disagrees with Donald Trump on many issues. But immigration is a big one. And he says it’s enough to keep him from casting his ballot for Trump this fall.
He says he didn’t vote for him back in 2016 either. And he says American consumers, in general, could be hurt by Trump’s immigration policies.
“That in the end ultimately has to raise the cost of food but then you have international trade agreements and if the cost of growing something is too high in one place another place may be able to do it cheaper,” Frantz says. “Even after shipping the goods halfway around the world.”
Thirty miles down Highway 99 is a much larger operation run by Dennis Johnston. He was also born and raised in Kern County. Johnston Farms grows citrus fruit, potatoes and bell peppers. The farm employs nearly 100 full-time packing workers and another 300 during the harvest season. Johnston
says all of the workers at his farm are required to fill out a federal I-9 form.
“The assumption on our part is that they are all documented or we couldn’t hire them, legally,” Johnston says.
But he says the industry needs more seasonal workers.
‘If you just relied on the legal immigration system there isn’t enough employees coming to replenish the migrant labor [who] are here now and working now and are retired and going to work in other industries,” he says.
It’s no secret that many of the farm workers in this country are undocumented. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says as many as half. Some farmers and labor contractors have estimated it’s more like three-quarters.
Gabriala Lopez is an immigration attorney with Eaton and Associates in Bakersfield and represents farm workers facing deportation. She says the Trump administration’s tougher enforcement has many more Central Valley residents asking for legal help and support.
“We were seeing many people coming into our office saying they had been detained on their way to work,” she says. “And most of these people are farm workers.”
People like Lopez say there’s been an uptick in arrests by ICE agents, as part of a larger sweep in California’s agricultural heartland. Lopez says family members often come to her on behalf of loved ones, who’ve been detained. Other times, people are released shortly after being detained by ICE.
“Typically it’s going to be someone who has no criminal record perhaps, maybe has U.S. citizen children,” Lopez says.
KVPR spoke with farm workers who fear getting detained on their way to or from work. And due to that fear, they asked not to have their remarks included.
Lopez says the U.S. government has been beefing up immigration enforcement since the 1980s. But she says the Trump Administration has taken it to a new level.
“We are moving towards an era of more and more enforcement and less and less actual congressional action,” Lopez says.
Dennis Johnston at Johnston Farms agrees with Lopez on that front. As for President Trump, Johnston says he votes on more than just immigration.
“Agriculture is generally supportive of Trump’s reducing regulation on our industry,” Johnston says. “But we generally are worried that his stance on immigration will be even more restrictive to the agriculture
Despite all that, Johnston’s is sticking by Trump, whom he voted for in 2016. And Johnston says he plans to cast his vote again for Trump this fall.