“Papá, I don’t think you should go to work today.”
The dread and hope of migrant farmers and families
The sky was tinted orange from fires burning in the Sierra. A man saddled an Andalusian mare at the beginning of the Joaquín Murrieta ride. The three-day procession celebrates the legendary Gold Rush–era Mexican Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. The ride began in the ’70s as a way to draw attention to Mexican farmworkers living in abandoned camps with filthy water. This year there were protests of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s stepped-up raids on a new generation of mostly Central American farmworkers.
Three teenage girls, American-born daughters of migrants, led the marchers on a day so polluted and hot that there were warnings to stay inside. They chanted, “No KKK! No fascist USA!” Few people saw the group parading past cantaloupe fields, but it was the most visible outcry against a terror growing in California farm towns.
Undocumented workers are a part of life in the Central Valley. California agriculture employs at least 500,000 farmworkers, and an estimated 60 to 70 percent have fake papers. Most years, it’s just an inside joke about how Benny got deported and came back Ricardo. But there are times when anti-immigration forces truly shake this region. Eleven years ago, raids destabilized the city of Mendota. The last straw for townspeople was when the father of a special-needs daughter was scheduled for deportation. “People got angry,” recalled Joseph Riofrio, the former mayor. “They flooded City Hall. They said, ‘No more. Not here.’ ”
This year, towns like Mendota feel under attack again. Within blocks of Riofrio’s pool hall live two fathers and two young sons. One pair coming, one pair leaving. Rodrigo*, the Salvadoran father of 9-year-old American-born Julio, picks crops. He said he likes the fields because it’s the natural world and he likes to use his muscles. But on some days, Julio tells him, “Papá, I don’t think you should go to work today. I feel scared,” and Rodrigo listens. He said there have been more raids in the past five months. His friend told him about a cousin who was arrested during a sweep of a packing plant. The cousin protested that she had a baby son at home. The ICE agent asked, “How old is your baby?” The cousin told her, “Five years old.” The agent said, “He’s old enough to take care of himself.”
Could this be one of the rumors that whips through fearful towns after each sweep? Rodrigo doesn’t think so. He heard it from his good friend, who heard it directly from the cousin. It’s hard to verify stories about ICE, a federal agency that operates under fewer requirements of public disclosure than local police. But both raids and rumors have caused lines at notario offices of parents wanting to name guardians for their children in case they are rounded up at work. About 12 percent of California schoolchildren have at least one undocumented parent, according to a 2014 Pew study.
Rodrigo is saving money to move to El Salvador with Julio out of fear of separation. They need to leave by the broccoli harvest, before Julio’s Salvadoran passport expires. He knows going back is dangerous. In El Salvador, two of Rodrigo’s brothers were killed by the army, two others killed and one wounded by gangs (in his box of keepsakes, Julio has a newspaper clipping about the murder of one of his uncles). Rodrigo’s own father, a farmer, was killed by the army over a field of pumpkins he wouldn’t relinquish. Rodrigo was 10 when his older brothers told him what had happened to their father, how all that was left was one boot and his hat.
Rodrigo arrived in Mendota nearly a dozen years ago with nothing but the clothes he was wearing: jeans and a ripped T-shirt. The farm contractor gave him a work shirt that was still damp with someone else’s sweat. He married a woman from his village in El Salvador. They had a son. After the divorce, his ex-wife returned to their village with Julio. Father and son were so bereft, however, she agreed to allow them to live together in the U.S.
But if they stay now and Rodrigo gets deported, Julio could be left alone with no way to get to his family.
Until they leave, Rodrigo and Julio follow a strict routine. Rodrigo walks his son to the babysitter on his way to the fields. He leaves the house only to work and get groceries, except on the weekends, when father and son walk hand-in-hand to get an ice-cream cone.
But on this Saturday, Rodrigo has a bad feeling. He thinks they should stay inside. “Don’t worry, Papá, you can use my passport,” Julio told him. “And then you’ll be safe.”
They stay inside.
As Rodrigo and Julio plan their departure, Jorge and his son, Enrique, arrive in Mendota from Honduras. The look-alikes are both quick to smile. Jorge is freshly showered after picking corn all day. “How can you not enjoy working when you haven’t worked in a long time?” he asked.
Jorge and 11-year-old Enrique were separated and detained in Texas in June after taking a bus through Honduras, walking through Mexico, and crossing the Rio Grande in a raft. Neither can swim. They thought the uniformed officers on the bank were there to help them if they started to drown.
One officer calmly told the adults to get in one line and the children in another. They were taken to different parts of a windowless, walled facility. On the adult side, the men shared stories of their journeys — the bandits, the exhaustion, seeing people lose fingers and toes trying to hop a train.
On the children’s side, everyone was too afraid to talk. “One 6-year-old cried all the time and said, ‘Where’s my mamá? Where’s my papá?’ and we didn’t know what to say, so we said nothing,” Enrique said. “We were scared the guards would come.”
After four or five days — they’re unsure of the exact amount of time because they never knew whether it was day or night — Jorge was fitted with an electronic ankle monitor, and they were released.
Jorge said it was Enrique who most wanted to come to the U.S. “He has been saying, ‘I want to go to school,’ almost since he was a baby. The teacher told us he is very smart,” said Jorge, who cannot read. He said it was hard to leave his wife and youngest child behind. But he and his wife were going without food so the children could eat, and still Enrique was going hungry.
Jorge expects to pay off the coyotes within six months while he sends money home. But he tells Enrique that he will work hard in the fields and Enrique will work hard at school and they will be no trouble to anyone. “One of my fears is being separated,” he said. “But I have heard that if you respect the law, it respects you back. I think now things will be better for our family.”