Farm leaders say California's sanctuary status makes them a target for ICE raids

Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler is one of the central San Joaquin Valley companies that were visited by ICE agents.
Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler is one of the central San Joaquin Valley companies that were visited by ICE agents. Fresno Bee file

Fresno County agriculture leaders say they feel caught in the middle in the tussle between California and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions over illegal immigration.

Sessions was in Sacramento Wednesday speaking to the California Peace Officers Association, and he was clearly annoyed with what state lawmakers have done to protect undocumented immigrants.

The federal government has sued the state for what it says is interference with federal immigration authorities.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said the state's policies have created havoc for agriculture employers and their workers. Cunha said the state's sanctuary status has made California and its employers targets for increased scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Several central San Joaquin Valley farm companies were audited recently, resulting in the loss of dozens of employees who did not return to work out of fear of being caught.

Cunha said he supports the effort to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but those working in agriculture are not the bad guys.

"When is the last time you found a felon milking cows or picking strawberries or pruning vines," he said. "We have people who have been here for years, who are now being caught up in this."

The state has raised the ire of federal officials, including Sessions, by imposing limitations and even penalties for employers when dealing with immigration officials during routine audits of workers' employment records, known as I-9 forms.

Under state law, employers cannot voluntarily allow immigration agents to access, view or obtain any employee records. The employer must require a subpoena or a warrant signed by a judge.

California has also declared itself a sanctuary state. That means, in part, that state and local law enforcement agencies are prohibited from using their officers and jails to enforce federal immigration laws.

Many in agriculture believe that the state's bold stance has lead to stepped up enforcement by ICE officers throughout the state. In farming, recent audits of employee records by federal immigration agents have scared many undocumented workers away.

Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said farmers are concerned that if the immigration audits continue during the peak of summer harvest, it could be trouble.

"This is very worrisome for employers in ag," Jacobsen said. "It puts us in the middle of wanting to abide by the state and federal law, but doing that has become much more complicated in the last six months."

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob