Anxiety Grows in Florida’s Farm Fields
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. Catalina Sanchez’s medical checkup would have to wait – going to a clinic was too risky. What they 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,” Catalina Sanchez, 26, said on a recent evening.
As President Donald 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.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly cast undocumented workers from Mexico as “bad hombres” and “lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers.” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 one in four 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 Barack 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, Norma 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,” Mr. Moore said.
Growers here rejected Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s administration would target him for speaking out.
One recent night, Catalina Sanchez got a social media 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?” Catalina 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.
Maristela Hinojosa held the meeting and, not long after Catalina Sanchez and Mr. 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 Maristela 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.
Mr. 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 and his wife 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. Mr. 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 Lourdes Villanueva watched lawyer Diana Castro drill some of those parents on how to stay safe.
“Can I see your purse?” Diana Castro asked a woman in the front row.
When she opened it, Diana 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,” Diana 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,” Lourdes Villanueva said.
The next day, Irene Lara and Paulina Martinez put on red 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.
Irene 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 Paulina 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.
Irene looked at Paulina 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 Immigrant protests, it’s the talk about raids, it’s the fear of strangers, it’s everything,” Irene 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 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 Irene 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 Mr. Trump with her mother, Perla Ocampo said she had no good answers.
“I am a woman of faith,” Perla recalled telling her daughter about Mr. 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 [let him] see the truth.”
If not faith, then the law. Perla Ocampo tried to remain calm. But Mr. 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.
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