LAMONT — Three white-bearded workers in turbans tie up the tops of almond trees in the San Joaquin Valley. They work quickly in the hot afternoon sun, circling the trees with black rope.
Farmers need to keep the branches growing upward so that the machine that harvests the almonds doesn’t do any damage to the trees. Each branch is pruned to concentrate growth at the shoot tips. That makes the almonds swell up to market-size. The same pruning is done with the almonds that have to be handpicked — the trees with the pink flowers instead of these, with white flowers.
Efrain Hercules, a Honduran immigrant, oversees the three men from India. He doesn’t have all of his teeth, but he still seems well fed. The foreman says the owner of the almond trees, who is also from India, treats his workers well.
The older gentlemen tying up the trees are well provided for, according to Hercules. The owner, whose land covers 1,000 acres, offers room and board in addition to pay. Quitting time is at 3 p.m. on the dot.
“People are leaving, and they’re not coming back,” he says. “We can’t find workers. They’re afraid. That’s because of the politics. It’s having a major impact.”
Last year’s presidential campaign was replete with talk of crackdowns on illegal immigration. President Donald J. Trump has set into motion plans to build a border wall and, though thwarted by the courts, has sought to implement restrictions on refugees and immigrants from some Middle Eastern countries.
Perhaps most significantly, the president has broadened the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The Department of Homeland Security stated last month that “all those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings, up to and including removal from the United States.” This is a change from the priority of targeting convicted criminals and others “who pose a danger to public safety.”
ICE is also now trying to work more closely with local police, though some cities like Los Angeles have stated their police would not work as immigration officials. ICE has expanded expedited removal, begun targeted operations and is working in areas of violent crime.
Reports of these measures — both real and rumored — have had no small impact on immigrants living in the San Joaquin Valley.
“Some crops will be lost because there aren’t enough workers for the harvest,” Hercules says.
The 250-mile-long San Joaquin Valley covers eight California counties. It is the most productive agricultural region in the world, according to the University of California, Davis. Sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl, the more than 250 crops include apples, grapes, lemons, celery, lettuce and walnuts.
A price to pay
Cesar Chavez — whose life is remembered every year on March 31, his birthday — worked for decades to improve the wages, treatment and working conditions of farmworkers. Through nonviolent efforts, he spoke up for the civil rights of those in need. He cofounded the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta and fought ongoing issues like pesticides being spread while workers were in the fields, contaminated drinking water and lack of bathrooms.
“It is clearly evident that our path travels through a valley of tears well-known to all farmworkers, because in all valleys the way of the farmworker has been one of sacrifice for generations,” Cesar Chavez said in his 1972 “Plan for the Liberation of Farm Workers.” “Our sweat and blood have fallen on this land to make other men rich.”
On immigration, Chavez and Huerta opposed the 1942-64 Bracero Program, a Mexican guest worker program that brought millions to work in the United States. The civil rights leaders opposed it because, they argued, the program undermined U.S. workers and did not treat immigrants fairly.
The focus on nonviolence the dignity of the worker still reverberates in the halls of the United Farm Workers Union original headquarters, located on 40 acres of land in Delano.
“We are against the injustices that have happened — and not just in this country,” says Erika Oropeza Navarette, national vice president of the United Farm Workers. “The movement continues, though things have changed.”
The union organized for workers to get overtime after eight hours and are working to improve conditions, especially during the hot summer months.
Marta Gutierrez, an immigrant from Mexico City, has been picking crops for the last 10 years. She didn’t know anything about farming when she arrived in the United States.
“I ate tortillas, but I never knew where they came from,” she says. Gutierrez began picking grapes, leaving them all in the same place at the end of the row. But at the end of the day, she found that her pile of grapes was smaller than she had estimated. It perplexed her because the slower workers seemed to have larger piles than she did.
Then she realized what was happening.
“They were taking grapes from my pile when I wasn’t looking!” she laughs. “It was so hard to work alone.”
She made friends with other women and they kept an eye on each other’s grape piles. Gutierrez, who recently became a U.S. citizen, went on to pick many other crops in the San Joaquin Valley. She says some working conditions have changed for the better, but some companies still treat their workers poorly.
And she reports seeing far fewer workers these days.
“It was an exaggerated social impact,” she says of Trump’s victory in the presidential election. Fear began to spread through the community before any laws had changed.
“Workers don’t want to leave their homes and they don’t want to drop off their children at school,” Gutierrez said. “Children, young adults, we’re all in a depression. Workers go to the fields in the morning in fear that they will not return home that day.”
The fear has led to false reports as well, she said. Rumors spread about ICE being stationed at different locations. Buses from a nearby prison are mistaken for immigration enforcement vehicles. This didn’t happen before the election.
Judith Adame, an undocumented immigrant from Ensenada, has a 2-year-old son. She’s a single mother.
“I’m afraid. But you have to do your best if you want to stay here,” says Adame, who also picks grapes. “Here, children can prosper in school. And education from the United States is worth more.”
It can be impossible to distinguish the false from the true reports about ICE, she says, so everyone assumes all the reports are true. “Some people do it just to scare others,” Adame says.
When workers get arrested, one of the first things they do is call the farmworker union, according to Navarrete of the United Farm Workers. She notes that, perhaps because of the expansion of the expedited removal, workers apprehended are being deported more quickly. Sometimes parents are being arrested in front of their children, she says.
In one case, immigration officials asked that a child’s eyes be covered while they put handcuffs on her father, Navarrete reports.
“Workers aren’t coming because they’re afraid of Trump,” she says.
The Obama administration deported 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, and the highest rate was during President Obama’s first term. Prioritizing criminals in his second term seemed to curtail deportations somewhat. Many of the deportation operations carried out this year had been planned during the Obama presidency, according to ICE.
Still, the perception among the immigrant community has clearly changed, according to Juan Flores of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. He noted two of President Obama’s executive actions — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) and the Deferred Action of Parents of Americans — which led to more tranquility among the immigrant community.
The Supreme Court, after a 4-4 split decision in July, enabled a delay of the implementation of DAPA after a lower court stopped it. DACA is still in place and, judging by the Trump administration’s language, it may remain indefinitely.
But other things have changed, according to Flores, a legal resident. He cited his own experience of visiting Mexicali regularly. Flores has been questioned more since Trump took office. He reports that an immigration official told him, “Be careful, because your residency could be taken away.”
“This administration has played with the fears of the people,” he says. “Everyone is afraid, not just the undocumented.”
The cost of this fear may go beyond the immigrant community as well, Flores says, with farmers reporting a lack of workers. He knows of workers who had been picking apples in Washington who are not traveling to California.
“I can’t say whether or not the workers will come. What I can say is that they have not yet arrived.”
That could spell trouble for California farmers. Recently, the California Department of Water Resources reported above average snowpack in the central Sierra Region, a main source of water for farmers. So in terms of the drought, things are looking up.
But the crops still need to be harvested. Navarrete said some could be brought over using the H2A visas. The Center for Farmworker Families estimates 75 percent of farmworkers are undocumented, so H2A visas alone may not make up for the need.
Navarrete compares the H2A visa to the Bracero program. She said it tends to contract only men in certain areas of Mexico and speculated foul play in terms of who gets the contracts. The workers and the farmers end up losing, she says. Enforcement-only policies don’t consider the economic impact on U.S. farmers.
“Everyone is afraid,” Navarrete says. “They’re not coming.”
At 3 p.m., right on time, the workers from India finish up their work in the almond field in Lamont and head home. Hercules stays back. He points at grooves in the ground, explaining how the rows of trees need to be wide enough for the harvesting machines to pass.
Hercules was 20 when he left Honduras in the 1980s. His country has the highest homicide rate in the world today, along with Venezuela. But Honduras was also violent back then, he says, at the hands of guerrillas.
“It’s going to have a major impact,” Hercules says of the lack of workers. “People from the United States won’t do work like this. We’re going to lose crops because we don’t have people to work the fields.”