At least 26 Kern County farmworkers were detained for deportation proceedings as part of a mass sweep last week across Central and Northern California that federal officials said was targeted at convicted criminals.
Many of the farmworkers appeared to have no serious criminal background and were stopped on their way to work by federal immigration officers in unmarked vehicles, said Armando Elenes, a vice president of United Farm Workers of America, which has been trying to document how many people have been detained.
In one instance, Elenes said, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents discovered the person they were looking for at a particular address no longer lived there. "But since they were there, they started to investigate and took some [other] people because they just happened to be there," he said.
"This is a very divisive tactic that the Trump administration is using, instead of focusing on real solutions," he said. "These are farmworkers who are trying to make ends meet, who are trying to work and provide for their families... It's creating a wave of fear throughout the entire agricultural community."
A total of 232 people were arrested in the latest statewide operation targeting "individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security," according to a statement from ICE. The four-day sweep stretched from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
Of those arrested, 180 were either convicted criminals, had been issued a final order of removal or had been previously removed from the United States and returned illegally, ICE authorities said. One hundred fifteen had prior felony convictions for serious offenses — such as child sex crimes, weapons charges and assault — or had past convictions for significant or multiple misdemeanors.
But ICE officials said the agency "no longer exempts classes or specific categories" of undocumented immigrants from potential enforcement action.
"During targeted enforcement operations, ICE officers frequently encounter other aliens illegally present in the United States," ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said in a written statement. "These aliens are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and, when appropriate, they are arrested by ICE officers."
ICE's latest operation comes at a time when President Trump has pushed for a sweeping crackdown on the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally. Trump and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions contend that law enforcement agencies should give immigration agents limitless access to jails and delay releasing immigrants from custody so that agents can detain them.
But many of the state's law enforcement leaders and city officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other municipalities have ignored those demands and instead have enacted policies or passed laws that restrict cooperation with immigration agents. Sessions has lashed out against such cities and threatened to withhold federal funding from some local agencies — a move that courts have found to be unconstitutional.
In its statement last week, ICE said the inability to cooperate and communicate with local law enforcement partners has "negatively impacted ICE operations in California."
"ICE has no choice but to continue to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at work-sites, which will inevitably result in additional collateral arrests, instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community," the statement said. "We will continue to do our sworn duty to seek out dangerous criminal aliens and other immigration violators."
In Kern County, news of the latest sweep has spread across the farming community and is sparking a sense of fear and helplessness, Elenes said.
In one case in Wasco, a truck that was taking a group of five farmworkers to the field got stopped. Immigration agents started asking questions, and four of the workers were arrested.
The United Farm Workers Foundation and UFW are focused on making sure workers know their rights and understand what to do if they get stopped, he said. "Most of them are being detained when [ICE] starts asking them questions and they start responding to the questions."
Elenes is also making sure workers in the community are prepared. He urged them to put together a list of emergency contacts and to make sure, if detained, they knew who will take care of their kids.