ICE targeted at least three more Valley farms with employee audits, nonprofit says

Walnuts are moved by conveyors through the Poindexter Nut Company. Isidro Gutierrez, right, keeps an eye on clean nuts piling up in a bin. Photo made Tuesday, September 7, 2004.
Walnuts are moved by conveyors through the Poindexter Nut Company. Isidro Gutierrez, right, keeps an eye on clean nuts piling up in a bin. Photo made Tuesday, September 7, 2004. Fresno Bee File Photo

Just as the agricultural world was convening in Tulare for the World Ag Expo this week, concern and fear continued to spread across central San Joaquin Valley farmers and thousands of farm workers after three more farms were hit by employee audits ordered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Pitman Family Farms, Poindexter Nut Company and Fresh Select LLC have each been notified by ICE that their employee records will soon be audited, Faith in the Valley lead organizer Thomas Weiler said. Faith in the Valley typically offers outreach services to low-income workers, undocumented immigrants, youth and other underserved groups; the organization is currently putting together a workshop for farmers seeking to protect their employees from ICE.

Pitman, a poultry farm in Sanger, employs about 5,000 workers, Weiler said. Poindexter grows and packages almonds, cashews, walnuts and pecans in Selma. Fresh Select packages and cold-stores citrus in Dinuba. Calls to each of the farms for comment were not immediately returned Thursday.

Olga Grosh, an attorney with Pasifika Immigration Law Group in downtown Fresno, said the latest round of audits have hit the Valley hard. Companies that have never been audited or may not have been audited for a decade or more are being targeted. Undocumented workers are frightened. Any mention of any ICE activity often leads them to leave their workplace or even their homes for fear of deportation.

Grosh said it is “widely rumored” that the increased ICE actions are specific to California – a retaliation for the state’s self-declared status as a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants.

According to Weiler, Faith in the Valley has been flooded with calls from concerned workers and farmers in the last few weeks. The organization received more than 100 calls over one 48-hour period last week, he said. Other farms are believed to have been targeted, and Faith in the Valley is still seeking to confirm exactly which companies have received audit notices.

A fourth farm, Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, also received an audit notice. Jim Marderosion, president of Bee Sweet Citrus, said the news of ICE’s presence spread quickly through his staff. About 40 of his 500 workers stopped showing up. In 2013, an ICE audit forced Marderosion to fire about 150 workers.

James Schwab, spokesman for ICE’s San Francisco office, said that approximately 77 businesses were served with I-9 audit notices from Jan. 29-31 across the office’s jurisdiction, which includes Northern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. Under federal law, employers are required to verify the identity and employment eligibility of their employees through Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9. He would not discuss whether the three Valley farms identified by Faith in the Valley are among the 77.

The ICE notices require an employer to provide I-9 forms for every employee within three days. After the forms are turned over, ICE conducts a compliance inspection.

“ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan previously stated that he has directed Homeland Security Investigations to step up worksite enforcement – to include conducting more I-9 audits in furtherance of pursuing more criminal investigations,” Schwab said.

Schwab said the actions taken recently “reflect (Homeland Security Investigations’) stepped-up efforts to enforce the laws that prohibit businesses from hiring illegal workers.” This strategy is “focused on protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce, and strengthening public safety and national security.”

He did not comment on the contention that California is the focus of ICE actions as punishment over its sanctuary state status.

In the 2017 fiscal year, ICE conducted 1,360 I-9 audits, which led to 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests. Businesses were also ordered to pay more than $100 million in fines, judicial forfeitures and restitution, Schwab said.

The latest round of I-9 audits would seem to contradict statements made Wednesday by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who appeared at the World Ag Expo and is touring Central Valley farms this week.

When asked about immigration enforcement fears, Perdue told ABC 30 that “ICE are not after the people out here working on our farms.” The Bee reached out Thursday to the Department of Agriculture for clarification, and a spokesperson refused to comment.