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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

NCM > Rumors of Immigration Raids Disrupt Agriculture Industry

NCM > Rumors of Immigration Raids Disrupt Agriculture Industry
Rumors of Immigration Raids Disrupt Agriculture Industry
Vida en el Valle, News Analysis,
Juan Esparza Loera, Jul 06, 2004

FIREBAUGH, Calif.-- The fears voiced by many undocumented immigrants who live and work in the nation's richest agricultural belt are very real, enough so that many are changing their daily routine or staying away from work at peak harvest time.

"The people are traumatized," says businessman Javier Márquez. "Even people who rent houses from me are talking about the redadas [raids]."

Rumors have spread like wildfire of U.S. Border Patrol raids along Highway 33 through the middle of California's agricultural Central Valley, where cars share the road with trucks carrying tomatoes, cantaloupes and other produce:

Undercover agents were stationed at the three main entrances to Firebaugh last week, forcing many people to stay away from work.

Five men at a local packing plant were picked up by an undercover officer who whisked them away in an unmarked van. As many as 27 Firebaugh residents have been picked up, and another 18 were detained in Dos Palos.

An entire family was picked up in a grocery store parking lot in Los Baños.

A man working on Nees Avenue just outside of Fresno was stopped and asked to produce documents. When he couldn't, he was asked to pay a fee to resolve the problem.

There are similar reports throughout the area, which explains the real emptiness of Maldonado Park or growers grumbling about people not showing up for work.

The problem is that only the last incident is probably true. No raids are being conducted in the area, according to federal immigration officials. What is going on, say law enforcement officials, is a scam by people posing as undercover agents who are shaking down unsuspecting immigrants for money.

"I haven't seen anything," admits Márquez. "But the fear is there with people. They are staying home and not coming out."

A college student, who refused to be identified, although she is a legal resident, fears for the safety of her fiancé, who is undocumented. "He doesn't want to go out and work for fear he'll be picked up."

Eliseo Gamiño, director of the West Hills Community College North District Office in Firebaugh, has been deluged with calls from area residents, who say some people report being asked for money to keep from being detained and deported.

"Something is happening," he says, referring to fewer customers he sees at area businesses.

Such is the delicate balance in the cat-and-mouse game between immigration officials and undocumented residents. Experts say as many as half of the people working in Valley fields are undocumented and have broken immigration laws, yet agriculture depends on these workers to do the jobs that few legal residents will take.

This game plan has worked for decades, as long as a wolf doesn't come along and ruin everything. Thus, whenever that balance is tipped -- such as is currently happening with the bogus agents -- growers cry foul, and undocumented workers play hide and seek.

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