Trump's promise to ramp up deportations spreads fear — among California businesses

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The news that President Trump ordered an aggressive crackdown on 11 million undocumented people sent a chill through immigrant communities. California businesses that employ lots of immigrants are shivering too.

Two memos released by Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Tuesday directed immigration officers to broaden the scope of their enforcement, conduct more raids of immigrant communities, and detain people living here illegally regardless of whether they had a criminal record. 

Those marching orders could hit the California economy particularly hard. Many of the industries that depend heavily on immigrants already were experiencing a labor shortage.

Undocumented workers make up 10% of the labor force in California, USC researchers have estimated, and form a large chunk of the employment that drives massive industries such as agriculture and construction.

Undocumented people account for 45% of agriculture employment in California and 21% of construction workers, according to the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Smaller but significant portions of the workforce in food service, manufacturing, hospitality and entertainment are undocumented. 

California is particularly dependent on immigrants and on undocumented workers not only because of its southern border but also because the state is such an expensive place to live and do business in, economists say.

“In the urban, rich economies of California, the high-end jobs are for U.S. born [workers] and the service, low-end jobs are for immigrants. Immigrants have adjusted to the high-cost environment, and that’s a way for them to absorb this cost,” said Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Irvine.  

Immigrants tend to live in tight quarters and move around a lot in order to cushion the blow of expensive real estate in California’s biggest cities, something that native-born Americans may be less willing to do, Peri said.

“Americans won’t live three people to a room in San Diego,” Peri added.

There are an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Kicking them all out would “decimate” California farms, construction sites and hospitality businesses, Peri said. He estimated that could reduce California’s economic output by 9%. 

Jesse Sandoval, a labor contractor based in Stockton who supplies nearly 500 workers to farmers in the Central Valley, said Trump’s policies are already putting growers on edge. California growers have been dealing with a persistent lack of qualified laborers for years, he said, partly because of President Obama’s tough immigration policies and the recession of 2008, which appears to have prompted a wave of Mexicans to return home for good.

There’s also a dwindling supply of field hands in Mexico. The birth rate has dropped to just over two children per mother — about the same rate as in the U.S., and about a third of Mexico’s rate in 1970. A recent study found that the country produced 150,000 fewer farmworkers every year from 1980 through 2010.  

“We aren’t getting the influx of people like we have in the past. Now, on top of that, it’s going to get even smaller,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval, who insisted that all of his employees have shown proper documentation, said agriculture workers are generally terrified about Trump’s new approach.

“People won’t even go out. They want to work and get back and stay home. People are afraid to be out in the streets,” Sandoval said. “One day into this and they are already changing their lives.”

There’s also a lot of confusion among immigrants, Sandoval said. People have begun to assume that any police checkpoint is a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint designed to detain undocumented workers. Others have begun carrying around their tax documents to “prove that they are working and being productive,” Sandoval said.

Under federal law, employers are required to ask people they have hired to present identification that shows they are authorized to work in the United States, including a passport, green card or Social Security card. After that identification is presented, the employer only has to verify to the federal government that they believe the documents are legitimate.

"If it’s a really good fake green card, it’s a really good fake green card," said Richard Green, a partner at Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger in Orange County. "Employers aren’t immigration officers."

Sandoval, the contractor, predicted that growers are going to face an even tighter labor market because some immigrant workers will voluntarily head for home.

 “People just aren’t going to want to deal with it, and are going to want to go back to Mexico,” he said.

Restaurants in Southern California also are grappling with a labor shortage, and owners say the new immigration policies may make things even tighter.

George Abou-Daoud, who owns seven restaurants in Los Angeles, including Farida and Bowery Bungalow, said that about every month since the start of 2016 one of his line cooks has gotten a new job offer. He has had to either raise their pay to keep them or scramble to find a replacement, he said.

That’s good for the chefs of Los Angeles, but it is putting a lot of pressure on their bosses.

“There is a massive shortage of talent from immigrant communities in the Los Angeles restaurant industry,” he said. “People are competing…. Ask anyone in Los Angeles, and they will tell you it’s more difficult to find a good cook.”

The restaurant industry depends on Latino workers to fill open positions, and the new deportation rules could make it “more challenging” to find qualified employees, said Selwyn Yosslowitz, co-founder of Marmalade Café, which operates seven restaurants in the Southland and an outlet at LAX.

“We rely on the Hispanic employment force, and we are definitely a huge employer,” Yosslowitz said. The rules have “created a sense of fear in the economy, which is not really healthy.”

Madelyn Alfano, president of Maria's Italian Kitchen, which operates nine restaurants and employs 400 workers, said anxiety about deportation had spread throughout her workforce.

Alfano, who emphasized that she hired documented workers, said her employees still worry about family members who are in the country illegally.

People wonder “‘what’s going to happen if my wife or my child or someone else in my family is taken away?’” Alfano said.

Alfano supports a road to legalization for immigrants already in the country, including a route for people to get work visas. She said she helped many of her workers obtain proper documents during the 1980s, after President Reagan passed a sweeping immigration reform bill that made immigrants who came to the U.S. before 1982 eligible for amnesty.

“The system should allow for people to get documented and document everyone in their family so that they can continue to live and work legitimately,” she said.

Natalie.Kitroeff@latimes.com

Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter

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