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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Farm workers march in Salinas Valley to protest immigration raids

Farm workers march in Salinas Valley to protest immigration raids

(06-30) 16:40 PDT GREENFIELD, Calif. (AP) --

More than one hundred farm workers participated in the second day of a five-day march up the Salinas Valley, stopping in small farming towns like Greenfield on Wednesday to protest recent immigration raids in Southern California.

Waving American and Mexican flags, the marchers are also trying to build support for a bill that would allow undocumented laborers to earn work permits after years of field work. The federal AgJobs bill is also backed by the agriculture industry.

Rogelio Lona, who has been picking mushrooms in the Watsonville area since 1965, is a U.S. citizen and said he wasn't afraid to join the demonstration. But many workers who are not legal residents are scared to go out, he added in Spanish.

"At work, I was hearing people say that immigration has been going after field workers without legal documents," Lona said. "I heard they're going after people at work, in stores, and I wanted to do something because that's not right."

Border Patrol agents have carried out sweeps in recent weeks in Southern California, arresting more than 420 people around Temecula.

United Farm Workers representatives and immigration officials said they have received calls trying to verify rumors about immigration sweeps around the state.

But immigration authorities said they are not staging similar raids in Northern California, and they have no plans to do so.

The U.S. Border Patrol has been slowing down operations, and is shutting down its Northern California headquarters in Livermore and related offices in Fresno and Stockton next month, said Steven Munoz, Senior U.S. Border Patrol agent in Fresno.

The five agents who are left have until July 8 to pick a new assignment by the southern border, or leave service, said Munoz, who is a 20-year veteran.

"We couldn't do a raid even if we wanted to," Munoz said. "We only have two agents left (in Fresno). And what are they protesting? What part of being in violation of the law don't they understand?"

After the July 30 closure, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the federal Department of Homeland Security, will take over the Border Patrol's responsibilities, although ICE generally has focused on long-term investigations. Daily beats -- checking on public complaints, working with the police or the sheriff's department to seize deportable immigrants -- generally has been the Border Patrol's job.

Unaware of turf negotiations between immigration control agencies, immigrants in small farming towns like Greenfield, population 13,000, are reacting to the raids in Southern California by trying to stay out of the streets, immigrant advocates and local residents said.

"People have heard about what happened," UFW Vice president Efren Barajas said. "There's a lot of intimidation going on."

The five-day march started in King City on Tuesday and will end in Salinas on Saturday, passing through the farming towns of Greenfield, Soledad, Gonzalez and Chualar.

Besides calling attention to workplace immigration raids, protesters are trying to build support for the AgJobs bill, which would legalize the status of farm laborers who commit to farm work for a number of years and make it easier for employers in agriculture to hire them. The proposal has 63 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate, including several Republicans.

"It is earned legalization, not an amnesty plan," UFW president Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement Wednesday.

Immigrants said passing the bill would improve the lives of workers who are already here and working.

"People who work need something, some paper, that says they can stay, so they don't have to be afraid," said 74-year-old retired farmworker Desiderio Baroso, speaking over chants of "Si se puede," -- "It can be done" -- during Wednesday's 10-mile march from Greenfield to Soledad.

Other marches are planned as well. Ventura County farm workers will walk all day Thursday and Friday, going from Santa Paula to Oxnard.

A rally will also be held in Reedley, in the San Joaquin Valley, on Thursday evening, and another one Friday in Arvin.

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