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Deportation Threats Worry California Farmworkers — and Farm Owners

Marcus Teply/KQED
Ventura County is one of the United States’ top agricultural producers, growing citrus, avocados and strawberries sold nationwide. According to the Ventura County farm bureau, as many as 36,000 field workers bring the harvest in every season.";

In the rolling hills above the farm community of Santa Paula, acres and acres of avocado and citrus trees spread out like a postcard from California’s small-farm past.

This is a rural area, but people here aren’t Donald Trump voters — Santa Paula voted 2-1 against him. The town of 30,000 in Ventura County is largely Latino, with an economy based on agriculture — an economy that depends on immigrant workers, many of them undocumented.

When I first meet Luis, he’s standing on top of a ladder in an avocado tree, cutting fruit for harvest. He collects up to 80 pounds of avocados in a canvas sack on his back, then climbs down and lugs it to a collection bin, dumping the fruit with a rumble.

“It’s a pretty nice workout,” he jokes. Then he starts back up the tree for another round.

It’s his fourth year on the harvest, and like many workers in Ventura County, Luis is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. I’m identifying him only by his first name over fears he could be deported.

“We work like a lot of people,” he says, “We don’t have papers. We cross the border, they say, ‘illegally.’ ”

He says he likes his job, and he’s good at it. That’s why the farm, Brokaw Ranch Co., wants to keep him and the rest of the contracted crew he works on.

Brokaw Ranch manager Jose Alcaraz explains it’s hard to find harvest crews who can work quickly and efficiently, and it’s time-consuming to train new ones.

“If we have a good crew, we don’t want to lose it,” he says.

Alcaraz is a U.S. citizen now, but decades ago he came to Santa Paula from Mexico just like Luis. So, he understands why farmworkers are worried about President Trump — farming businesses are worried, too.

“We are in the same boat,” he says. “We need each other, so we are concerned — if they are concerned, we are concerned, too.”

Trump’s promises to deport people in the country without authorization have people on edge, especially in California agriculture.

Ventura County’s farm bureau estimates there are about 36,000 immigrant workers, many of them undocumented, bringing in the county’s $2 billion harvest. According to an estimate by the Center for Farmworker Families, about 75 percent of California’s agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants.

But authorization or not, farms need workers, and they were scraping to find them even before Trump’s election. Field work is hard, and the pay’s not great — about $12 an hour to start, although fast, experienced crews like Luis’ can earn up to $20 an hour on a piecework rate. But it’s hot, dirty, physical work, and farms all over the country have struggled to find legal workers willing to do it.

Ranch owner Ellen Brokaw says she’s tried to hire U.S. workers, as part of federal rules linked to a guest worker program she has turned to since the labor supply started to dry up. But she says U.S.-born workers don’t want the jobs, and so she depends on immigrants to keep the business going.

“Some people apply, but almost never do any of them stay. So there’s no way that we can take care of and pick our crops without immigrant labor,” she says.

If mass deportations hit Santa Paula, she and Alcaraz both say Brokaw Ranch would lose much of its harvest.

“We would have to abandon most of our crops,” Brokaw says.

Brokaw says what agriculture here needs is “humane and reasonable” immigration reform. Instead, with Trump in the White House, Santa Paula and other farm communities are worried he’ll deport their workforce, who also happen to be their neighbors.

“Anybody who gets stopped or confronted who doesn’t have papers is vulnerable. It’s an awful way to live, under that shadow.” Brokaw says, adding that the threat of raids is disruptive to a community of which undocumented workers are “absolutely, absolutely” a part.

“These people who are here cultivating and harvesting our crops are hard-working people who just want to live safely and support their families. And the way in which they are demonized is … deeply distressing. And totally inaccurate,” she says.

Rumors of raids have been flying, and there already have been arrests reported in nearby communities. Alcaraz says people in Santa Paula are scared.

So they’re preparing for the worst. Local community groups are doing outreach, setting up town hall meetings with lawyers and advocates to make sure undocumented people know their rights. One group has set up a text alert system to warn of ICE raids.

As he hauls yet another sack of avocados, Luis says he’s keeping his head down and staying on the right side of the law as much as he can.

“I’m trying to do good, you know? Because I’m planning to live my whole life right here,” he says. “I really like it. California’s a pretty good state.”

And with a wave, he heads off back to work.

Copyright 2017 KQED