At least 40 workers at Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler lost their jobs after federal immigration agents began checking employee records last week, searching for people who are not legally allowed to work in the United States.
The enforcement action is part of an ongoing effort by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to make sure employers aren’t knowingly hiring someone who is undocumented.
James Schwab, ICE spokesman, said the work site enforcement is nothing new and remains a priority of special agents with Homeland Security Investigations to ensure employers are in compliance with the law.
In recent weeks, ICE agents have paid visits to employers from Southern California to the Bay Area, sending a strong message to employers and workers to beware. Last month, ICE agents arrested 21 workers as part of a nationwide sweep of nearly 100 7-Eleven stores.
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The ICE visits, known as employer audits, have just began in the central San Joaquin Valley and many expect them to continue.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, a Fresno-based agriculture advocacy group, estimates that about eight employers have been visited by ICE agents.
“This is no joke,” Cunha said. “This is really happening and it is hurting our communities.”
As part of ICE’s tactics, they give an employer 72 hours notice before they will come to check employee verification records, known as an I-9 forms. The form is used to verify the identity and legal authorization of the employee.
Jim Marderosion, president of Bee Sweet Citrus, said his workers were aware the ICE agents were coming and that was enough for some employees not to return to work. He lost 40 workers out of nearly 500.
“One woman who has worked for me for nearly 20 years came up to me, gave me a hug and told me that she had to leave; she couldn’t take a chance,” Marderosian said. “I got emotional because this is a very difficult thing for families.”
This is the second time Marderosian has lost workers because of an ICE audit. In 2013, he had to let go of 150 workers. As a longtime farmer and packing house owner, Marderosian is frustrated at the current situation.
For decades, industries like agriculture, construction and manufacturing have depended on immigrant workers, many who are undocumented. But attempts at immigration reform have failed or stalled in Congress.
“What good does it do to make these workers lose their jobs,” Marderosian said. “They will have to find work somewhere. Some way or another they are going to have to feed their families.”
Leticia Valencia, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, said the ICE visits have many undocumented workers concerned.
“People are not wanting to go to work,” she said, “because they are afraid that they many not come home to their families.”