Anx­i­ety grows in Florida’s farm fields

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT SAMUELS

Ru­mors about de­por­ta­tion raids started to cir­cu­late around the fields again, so Catalina Sanchez and her hus­band be­gan to cal­cu­late the con­se­quences of ev­ery­thing they did.

Cir­ilo Perez, 36, had to go to work be­cause the to­mato crop was get­ting low, and he needed to pick as much as he could as fast as he could. Sanchez’s med­i­cal checkup would have to wait — go­ing to a clinic was too risky. What they Heleodora José José stands in the door­way of her trailer in Dover, Fla. She works in the lo­cal fields, pick­ing sea­sonal pro­duce and pre­par­ing for the har­vest but is afraid to travel to find other work for fear of be­ing de­tained. fret­ted most about was what to do with their daugh­ter Miriam — a nat­u­ral-born cit­i­zen in the third grade — who they wor­ried would come home one day to an empty trailer.

“When she leaves, I won­der if it will be the last time I see her,” Sanchez, 26, said on a re­cent evening.

As Pres­i­dent Trump moves to turn the full force of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to­ward de­port­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, a new­found fear of the fu­ture has al­ready cast a pall over the to­mato farms

and straw­berry fields in the largely un­doc­u­mented mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties east of Tampa.

Any day could be when de­por­ta­tions ramp up; that, to them, seemed cer­tain. No one knew when or where. And so the com­mu­nity here is in a state of sus­pen­sion. Chil­dren have stopped play­ing in parks and the streets and busi­nesses have grown qui­eter, as many have re­ceded into the back­ground, where they feel safe.

“It’s all grin­gos here,” said Maria Pi­mentel, owner of the com­mu­nity sta­ple Ta­que­ria El Sol, who said she had never heard so much English in her restau­rant in her life. Busi­ness had plum­meted, she said, be­cause her Span­ish-speak­ing cus­tomers were “scared to come out of their house.”

Trump has re­peat­edly cast un­doc­u­mented work­ers from Mex­ico as “bad hom­bres” and “low­er­skilled work­ers with less ed­u­ca­tion who com­pete di­rectly against vul­ner­a­ble Amer­i­can work­ers.” Trump made clear dur­ing his cam­paign that “those here il­le­gally to­day, who are seek­ing le­gal sta­tus, they will have one route and one route only: to re­turn home and ap­ply for reen­try like ev­ery­body else.”

In the early days of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, Trump has be­gun to fol­low through on those prom­ises. Ear­lier this month, the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency ar­rested 680 peo­ple across the coun­try. The agency has also be­come ag­gres­sive about at­tempt­ing to de­tain un­doc­u­mented mi­grants who have been jailed by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. As of Fri­day, it has is­sued more than 42,000 de­tainer re­quests this year, 35 per­cent higher than the year be­fore.

ICE de­scribed its ac­tions as “rou­tine” and lam­basted those who la­beled them as “raids” be­cause nearly 1 in 4 of those ar­rested had no crim­i­nal records.

Ac­tivists and res­i­dents here said they saw at least six peo­ple taken away on Feb. 2 dur­ing a search for some­one ac­cused of sell­ing fake So­cial Se­cu­rity cards in nearby Plant City, the “Win­ter Straw­berry Cap­i­tal of the World.” The next day, the num­ber of mi­grant chil­dren who stayed home from school surged by 40 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the lo­cal school dis­trict.

There were crack­downs un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, as well, but lo­cal ac­tivist Norma Ros­alez said peo­ple gen­er­ally trusted him to tar­get only crim­i­nals and po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists. Obama also of­fered pro­tec­tion to “dream­ers” — un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who were brought to the coun­try at a young age — but teenagers were now afraid to ap­ply to the pro­gram, Ros­alez said, over fears that an ap­pli­ca­tion would lead an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer straight to their door.

The changed en­vi­ron­ment made many won­der what would hap­pen to the north this spring and sum­mer, when work­ers nor­mally move on to Ge­or­gia to pick peaches or to Michi­gan to pick pep­pers. Many thought they would now stay put. It was safer that way.

“We look at it like this: The coun­try can ei­ther im­port its work­force or im­port its food,” said Dale Moore, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of pol­icy for the Farm Bureau, which lob­bies for eas­ing re­stric­tions to get for­eign work­ers for agri­cul­ture.

“We’ve been fight­ing for this for years, but im­mi­gra­tion has a dif­fer­ent fla­vor with Don­ald Trump,” Moore said.

Grow­ers here re­jected Trump’s no­tion that farm­work­ers were com­pet­ing with Amer­i­can work­ers, and hoped he would see more nu­ance to the is­sue.

“You can ac­tu­ally make a good liv­ing — $15, $20 an hour if you’re good at this — but the truth is Amer­i­cans don’t want to do this work,” said one prom­i­nent Florida farmer, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he feared Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion would tar­get him for speak­ing out.

One re­cent night, Sanchez got a Face­book mes­sage say­ing that raids were go­ing to hap­pen ei­ther that day or the next. An­other friend told them about a po­lice car check­ing ve­hi­cles in a nearby town. Some­one else talked about see­ing an ICE of­fi­cer shop­ping at Wal­mart. There was a meet­ing for con­cerned par­ents in a nearby sub­di­vi­sion, but they won­dered whether it was a trap.

“Is it safe?” Sanchez asked Maris­tela Hi­no­josa, a com­mu­nity co­or­di­na­tor for the His­panic Ser­vices Coun­cil who or­ga­nized the meet­ing. She had re­ceived so many sim­i­lar calls that she con­sid­ered can­cel­ing.

Hi­no­josa held the meet­ing and, not long after Sanchez and Perez took their seats in the back, she locked the doors to make peo­ple feel safer. When there was a knock, she re­sponded with, “Quien es?” be­fore open­ing the door.

This was the sort of les­son Hi­no­josa em­pha­sized to the at­ten­dants. Don’t just open the door. If there is an ICE agent on the other side, don’t open it at all. She told them about their right to re­main silent. She handed out tiny cards that were to be handed over to any­one who stopped them, ex­plain­ing that they did not speak English and would like a lawyer.

Perez im­me­di­ately put the card in his wal­let. “I feel like this is some­thing I could do,” he said with a rare touch of em­pow­er­ment. He had met Sanchez work­ing in the fields and to­gether they had young Miriam and, now, a baby named Gus­tavo. They tried to avoid the topic with their chil­dren.

“I don’t like what I’m do­ing, but I do it to make a liv­ing, and I find joy in that,” Perez said after the meet­ing. “It was the choice be­tween a full life for my chil­dren or a life of empty stom­achs.”

The cou­ple be­gan to cry. Miriam walked up to hug her fa­ther. Perez pulled out his cell­phone and tried to change the sub­ject.

“Do you want to see videos of work­ing on the farm?” he asked his daugh­ter.

There were sim­i­lar ses­sions go­ing on through­out the county, with com­mu­nity lead­ers fo­cus­ing on help­ing fam­i­lies with Amer­i­can chil­dren. Lour­des Vil­lanueva, di­rec­tor of pro­grams for the Red­lands Chris­tian Mi­grant As­so­ci­a­tion, which runs Head Start pro­grams for mi­grant fam­i­lies through­out Florida, said she was sur­prised how pop­u­lar they were — and how un­pop­u­lar school had be­come.

Usu­ally, there were wait­ing lists for mi­grant chil­dren to get into preschool, but after the elec­tion en­roll­ment dropped by 43 per­cent. Staff at the Head Start cen­ter in nearby Dover be­gan stack­ing cab­bages and ba­nanas on flatbeds out­side so the farm­work­ers had food to take home when they picked up their chil­dren, since many of their par­ents were afraid to go to the gro­cery store.

Now Vil­lanueva watched lawyer Diana Cas­tro drill some of those par­ents on how to stay safe.

“Can I see your purse?” Cas­tro asked a woman in the front row.

When she opened it, Cas­tro said, “No. Nunca con­sienta en nada.” Don’t con­sent to any­thing. Also, don’t run. Don’t carry false IDs. Prac­tice the phrase, “Am I free to go?”

“Don’t try to get pity from them, be­cause they are not try­ing to help you,” Cas­tro said. “They are just try­ing to do their jobs.”

Vil­lanueva handed out a stack of doc­u­ments that asked par­ents to name an emer­gency con­tact who would have au­thor­ity to take cus­tody of their chil­dren in case they were sent back to Mex­ico.

“No mat­ter what, we should be pre­pared,” Vil­lanueva said.

The next day, Irene Lara and Paulina Martinez put on red

“We’ve been fight­ing for this for years, but im­mi­gra­tion has a dif­fer­ent fla­vor with Don­ald Trump.” Dale Moore, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of pol­icy for the Farm Bureau, which lob­bies for eas­ing re­stric­tions to get for­eign work­ers for agri­cul­ture

shirts and climbed into a white van for a dif­fer­ent kind of search.

As mi­grant re­cruiters for the school sys­tem, their job was to look for farm­worker fam­i­lies who had not sent their chil­dren to school. They never in­quired about their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

The re­cruiters helped to dou­ble the num­ber of mi­grant chil­dren at­tend­ing pub­lic school within two years, ac­cord­ing to Carol Mayo, who su­per­vises a pro­gram serv­ing 4,000 stu­dents.

Nowa­days, fam­i­lies were less likely to ask about school lunch and more likely to ask how they could get a lawyer or get in touch with the Mex­i­can Con­sulate. One of her new­est staffers even caused a scare when he drove to a trailer park wear­ing sun­glasses. The dwellers be­gan scream­ing as they ran in­side and as laun­dry flew off clothes­lines.

“I’m not im­mi­gra­tion!” the new re­cruiter re­called scream­ing to calm them down.

Lara thought she had mas­tered how to find mi­grant work­ers. She would glance at peo­ple’s knees to look for clumps of dirt or un­der their cu­ti­cles for stains from straw­ber­ries. She would de­murely speak with them in Span­ish, then try to im­press them by telling them about the day she picked 81 flats of straw­ber­ries when she worked on the farms her­self.

But, on this day, she and Martinez set out for a strip mall that farm­work­ers fre­quent and saw no one. They drove to a nearby straw­berry field, where typ­i­cally she could spot the sil­hou­ettes of bent-over straw­berry pick­ers in the dis­tance. The grove was rel­a­tively empty.

Lara looked at Martinez and said: “I don’t think we’re go­ing to find any­one to­day.”

They trav­eled next to a trailer park near one of the big­gest straw­berry fields in Plant City. As they drove into the lot, men jumped into cars with tinted win­dows and li­cense plates from Ten­nessee, Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan. One driver wore a mask over his face.

“It’s Day With­out Im­mi­grants protests, it’s the talk about raids, it’s the fear of strangers, it’s ev­ery­thing,” Lara said. “Peo­ple are scared, but their chil­dren still need help. It’s bet­ter for them to be in school.”

They made one fi­nal stop at St. Cle­ment Catholic Church, where more and more mi­grants had been show­ing up for Mass on Sun­days. Pulling in, she saw some­thing she had not seen all day: a man walk­ing out of a build­ing on the church cam­pus with dirt caked on his jeans. “Que paso?” she asked. The man ex­plained that rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Mex­i­can Con­sulate had set up in a recre­ation area of the church. The con­sulate had come to help un­doc­u­mented mi­grants fill out pa­per­work for their Amer­i­can chil­dren so they could ap­ply for dual cit­i­zen­ship. It was a last, des­per­ate move for those who might get de­ported.

“I don’t want to leave her with strangers,” the man said to Lara.

In­side, par­ents sat in plas­tic chairs wait­ing to meet rep­re­sen­ta­tives who sat with a stack of pa­per­work on fold­out ta­bles. Some fam­i­lies came with bags filled with doc­u­ments. Some had no proof of ori­gin at all.

Kayla Gon­za­lez, 10, sat on the floor as her mother watched her baby brother.

“I think Trump is bul­ly­ing peo­ple by the color of their skin and he should show love to peo­ple more and make bet­ter life choices,” Kayla said. “I love my par­ents, and I don’t un­der­stand why the gov­ern­ment would want to take them away.”

Kayla’s mother, Perla Ocampo, 34, sells Mary Kay prod­ucts; her fa­ther sells fruit.

When Kayla raised her fears about Trump with her mother, Ocampo said she had no good an­swers.

“I am a woman of faith,” Ocampo re­called telling her daugh­ter about Trump’s plans. “We just have to trust that there is a rea­son we are liv­ing through this, and hope that this mo­ment would open his heart and see the truth.”

If not faith, then the law. Ocampo tried to re­main calm. But Trump’s Amer­ica had so un­set­tled her, she felt forced to seek help from the coun­try she ran away from 16 years ago. It was an Amer­ica in which her Amer­i­can daugh­ter was now look­ing to also be­come a Mex­i­can cit­i­zen, so she could join her fam­ily if she came home from school one day to find an empty home.

They prayed it would never hap­pen. Maybe it never would. But if it did, they wanted to be ready.



TOP: Heleodora José José watches sons Ulises and Elvis play out­doors while her daugh­ter, Melissa, stands in the door­way of their trailer in Dover, Fla. ABOVE: Miriam Sanchez Perez, 9, stands out­side the rented trailer her fam­ily calls home in a back yard in Wimauma.


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