In a field near Florida City, zucchini pickers are filling bushel basket after bushel basket as irrigation trucks shoot geysers into the sky behind them. Many if not most are Mexican and Central American. Many if not most are undocumented immigrants.
When they empty a basket their badges are scanned to prove their productivity. It’s a hot, backbreaking routine, and they’re lucky if they earn $9 to $10 an hour.
But right now they’ve got bigger worries.
“Being out in the open like this, I feel more nervous than ever since I came here eight years ago,” says Emilio, a 28-year-old picker from Guadalajara, Mexico.
He gives only his first name because, like so many undocumented workers now, he fears federal agents may swoop in at any moment and arrest him.
President Trump has broadened the range of undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – known as ICE.
In years past ICE’s deportation priority was immigrants convicted of serious crimes. But now, “it seems you could get deported for a speeding ticket,” says Emilio, whose wife is also undocumented. Their 3-year-old son was born here – and they’re seeking legal advice on what best to do with him if they do get deported.
“We came to work, not to rob anybody,” Emilio says. “We feel more hunted down than usual.”
ICE won’t comment on whom it’s targeting for deportation. And so far, mass deportation raids in South Dade’s vast fruit and vegetable fields are more rumor than reality. What’s more, since Florida depends on agriculture and tourism – and is heavily populated by low-wage immigrant labor – Emilio’s fears aren’t new.
Even so, in the past they might not have been as pronounced as they were in places with even more migrant labor, like California or Texas. In the past several years those states have seen almost twice the number of immigrant deportations per capita that Florida has. But immigrant advocates here say undocumented workers now feel as vulnerable as their counterparts out west.
“The message we’ve been giving them has been, Don’t open the door, ask for a warrant,” says Beatriz Coronado, the Florida City area coordinator for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.
Coronado adds the angst among indocumentados is worse now since Miami-Dade County has decided to comply with Trump’s executive order that local governments help out with federal detentions.
“Everybody is more on high alert,” says Coronado, who herself was a child of migrant field workers. “You always hear, ‘Oh, we spotted ICE agents at this particular field.’ Whether it’s true or not, at any point they could get pulled over, and they’re not sure what’s going to happen to them. I think the biggest fear is that their information – ICE would be able to tap into.”
She says the even larger specter is being separated from their U.S.-born children. So advocates here are offering legal help for those kids – as well as assistance for needs like passports and dual citizenship from their countries’ consulates.
Last week the group WeCount! in Homestead held a clinic teaching migrant workers how to draft affidavits. The documents spell out things like whom children will live with here if both parents get sent back to countries like Mexico and Guatemala.
“They’re more interested in learning about their rights now,” says Jonathan Fried, WeCount’s executive director.
“It was a really hard thing for a lot of these folks to take – a man who started his campaign calling Mexicans criminal and rapists was elected President of the United States. Immigration enforcement throughout the Obama Administration was pretty stiff. But the plan President Trump has put out is a blueprint for the Obama Administration on steroids.”
Obama was indeed nicknamed deporter-in-chief. Still, migrant workers say they didn’t feel as though Obama was conducting what Fried calls the “state-sponsored xenophobia” under Trump.
Trump and his supporters insist the wider deportation program is meant to enhance U.S. national security by rounding up more of the criminal undocumented. But immigrant advocates here say the perception of racism in immigration enforcement has created a sense of fatalism among migrant workers.
“I have a friend, he says, ‘Arturo, any valuables, any money that I have, I’m gonna start sending it back to Mexico, because I’m gonna get deported and I’m gonna lose everything,” says Arturo Lopez, who heads the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations in Florida City.
“So they’ve lost any hope.”
Still, for the moment the fears outweigh than the facts. To realize his deportation project, Trump wants 10,000 additional ICE agents. It’s unlikely a sizable portion could be vetted, trained and on duty by the time Trump’s initial term is up in 2021.
By then the political landscape could change – and workers in South Florida’s fields may no longer feel like they’re in the feds’ crosshairs.