September is prime harvest season for many of the San Joaquin Valley’s top crops, including wine grapes, raisin grapes and almonds. It’s no secret that the majority of people picking those crops are undocumented. And with immigration reform still in flux, farmers, advocacy groups and a U.S. senator want immigration officials to leave farmworkers alone.
Growers say that federal I-9 audits are increasing on farms and in packinghouses, according to Ryan Jacobsen, head of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. The government requires newly hired workers to fill out an I-9 form and prove they have a right to work. Growers fear they’ll be forced to fire employees who have false documents.
“Obviously, it’s the jobs that in most cases Americans don’t want to do,” says Jacobsen. “So you really have two decisions: one to either outsource the production of food or, number two, to allow California farmers and ranchers to do the job they do so well and find a reliable workforce to do that.”
Jacobsen says California needs these workers and there’s a misconception that they’re unskilled laborers.
“These individuals have an incredible wealth of information that’s needed on California farms for the industry to remain productive,” he says.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter this month asking the Department of Homeland Security to back off the audits on California farms and focus enforcement on violent criminals. In the letter she said she’s concerned about “significant harm to the agricultural industry and the state’s overall economy.”
This wasn’t her first request. Last year, Feinstein sent a similar letter -- and Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League says little has improved.
“We want ICE to focus on the criminal side, and that’s what Sen. Feinstein is pushing,” he says. “We’ve asked the administration for a meeting right away to deal with this issue.”
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A farmworker harvests broccoli near El Centro, California.
Cunha says he and 25 other farm agencies and growers signed their own letter to Homeland Security last year. “It’s very difficult for agriculture when we know in California we’re running 90 percent with documented problems,” says Cunha.
In 2009, I-9 inspections ramped up under the Obama administration and peaked nationally at about 3,000 last year.
Michael Prado is resident agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Fresno. He says ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, doesn’t randomly target companies. It’s ICE’s job to enforce the laws, he says, but it has some discretion and investigations typically follow leads.
“Whether it’s something in addition to the hiring of undocumented aliens, the potential aiding and abetting of securing fraudulent documents, things like that,” he says.
He says audits focus on educating companies to hire people lawfully able to work in the U.S.
“Worksite enforcement has changed from what were considered in the past to be raids to now more administrative working with the human resource departments of these companies,” he says.
But without a law to legalize agricultural workers, farmers are still stuck between a rock and a hard place, says Don Riding, who managed the Fresno immigration office for years. The current guest worker program requires farmers to provide housing, but he says that’s not effective in California, where growers might only hire employees for a couple of weeks.
“In North Carolina, they legally bring in workers to work in tobacco because they work for six or seven months out of the year, and it’s now affordable to build the housing and to comply with all the laws for temporary agricultural workers,” he says. “Those rules just don’t work in California.”
At a coffee shop in the farming town of Reedley (Fresno County), Sheri Wiedenhoefer meets with other immigrant advocates. She’s the director of the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee, and says many churches are backing Feinstein’s letter because they see undocumented farmworkers in their communities dealing with fear and job loss.
“Those that are struggling with economic circumstances and vulnerabilities have a much harder road to go, and no one’s complaining for that journey,” she says. “They just deserve a fair shot.”
It’s a shot that Jacobsen, of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says comes from changing the system. “We need to find some kind of reliable system going forward that’s going to allow us to have a reliable labor supply without the threat and intimidation of having to worry about these audits,” he says.
That’s one reason that growers and others in the San Joaquin Valley hope immigration reform efforts will be back on the table again.