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19 Sep 2018

The Fear Factor: Increases in Hateful Rhetoric and Border Patrol Actions Cast Dark Shadows on the Coachella Valley's Immigrant Populations and Their American Dreams

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The Fear Factor: Increases in Hateful Rhetoric and Border Patrol Actions Cast Dark Shadows on the Coachella Valley's Immigrant Populations and Their American Dreams Kevin Fitzgerald

Alan has now lived in the Coachella Valley for 17 years, ever since he was 17 years old.

Even though he has always worked hard and played by the rules—at least the rules that aren’t stacked against him—he doesn’t want his last name used in this story. The reason: Both he and his wife are undocumented immigrants. They have a son, 10, who is a U.S. citizen by birth.

“Since President Trump has been in office, we have seen all the anti-immigrant statements and all the news coverage on TV of what’s happening,” he said. “We’ve been afraid to go out and go about our normal life routines, because if a cop stops us, they will call the immigration (agents), and we will be taken away.

“We’re very uncomfortable, and it is not easy for us to live every day. We always have to be looking behind our backs.”

The government under Donald Trump seems to be quite proud of such discomfort. On Feb. 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a news release stating that the agency’s personnel had arrested 212 individuals for violating federal immigration laws, and had served 122 notices of inspection to businesses in the Los Angeles area. On March 16, another ICE news release trumpeted the arrests of 115 individuals in San Diego and Imperial counties, again for violating federal immigration laws. On June 14, yet another ICE news release announced the arrests of 162 individuals in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, including 15 people in San Bernardino County, and 12 here in Riverside County.

Yet another ICE news release, from May 14, proclaimed that between Oct. 1, 2017, and May 4, 2018, Homeland Security had opened some 3,510 worksite investigations, and had made 594 criminal and 610 administrative worksite-related arrests. Compared to the entire previous fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, the number of investigations had more than doubled—and the number of arrests had quadrupled.

Anyone believed to be in this country illegally is fair game. “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a statement. “All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

It’s clear: Not only is the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration violations intended to identify and remove convicted criminals from American society; it’s also designed to create a climate of fear in the daily lives of all undocumented immigrants—including many of our neighbors here in the Coachella Valley.

“The U.S. Border Patrol has jurisdiction over our streets and our community; that’s why immigration has always been a problem, and our community continues to be at risk,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center, an organization with offices in Perris and Coachella which seeks to empower disenfranchised immigrant communities, according to its website. “But what has changed lately is that a lot of the rhetoric is creating more fear, and all of the political division at the federal level is really impacting people at the grassroots level.”

This rhetoric has brought out a lot of hate—and it’s plaguing both undocumented and documented immigrants in our community, Gallegos said.

“We hear from students what they are going through in their schools,” she said. “Even kids are emboldened to talk on their hate, saying things like, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ and calling them wetbacks. We see that people now feel empowered to speak out about feelings they’ve carried their entire lives.

“Having grown up here for my whole life, as a child, we heard that the KKK would gather in Rainbow (in northern San Diego county), and we always feared the KKK growing up. Back then, we didn’t know who they were, because they wore robes and covered their faces, but now, you really know who these people are, right? People are coming out, and now we can really see where people stand.”


Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia represents the state’s 56th District, which includes much of the eastern Coachella Valley. He said the hatred being openly expressed toward immigrants ignores the valuable contributions they make to our community.

“It’s important to highlight just who we are talking about,” Garcia said. “We are talking about people who work in very significant and important industries to the Coachella Valley economy—folks working out in the farming fields of the eastern Coachella Valley who are putting food on people’s tables, along with the men and women who make up a large part of the hospitality and service industry that is essential to our economy in California. So we’re talking about just putting a face to the subject. These are the working people who help drive the economic engine of our region.”

Megan Beaman-Jacinto is an immigration-rights attorney, activist and candidate for the Coachella City Council.

“A lot of things that this president has tried to do against immigrants have not been able to proceed, like trying to end DACA,” Beaman-Jacinto said. (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows some younger people who came to the United States without documents to stay and work legally in the U.S.) “But other things have happened—things like people being denied immigration benefits at higher rates now (than under previous administrations). And (President Trump) is trying to pass new regulations that will make it harder for even permanent residents to become citizens if they used certain public benefits, even legally, in the past.

“Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. I went with some clients to a citizenship interview a few weeks ago in the immigration offices in San Bernardino. In that lobby, there are two TVs, and they’re always on CNN. So the whole time we were waiting there, it was like, ‘Trump says this about immigrants, and Trump says that about immigrants and this about the immigration department.’ … I’m thinking, ‘Well, at least my client is about to become a citizen,’ but who knows what other status everyone else in that room has? That’s really terrifying if you’re one of the people directly impacted, and it goes on nonstop.”

The nation’s immigration system has been broken for a long time, since long before Donald Trump became president. In fact, some immigration activists referred to President Barack Obama as the “deporter-in-chief” due to his administration’s high number of deportations.

However, the intensity of the rhetoric is indeed new.

“Now you get an administration that begins to utilize the state of fear—(saying) that illegal immigration is taking over, that illegal immigration is the reason for increases in violent crimes. … ‘They are rapists, murderers, etc., etc., etc.,’ Garcia said. “The fact that we still remain with no comprehensive immigration reform policy creates a huge level of uncertainty for a lot of people in this country, in California and in the Coachella Valley.

“I’ve got to imagine that this type of fear-mongering has disrupted our economy to some extent. Perhaps people are not presenting themselves for work. Perhaps the kids are not showing up at school. (There’s a) decrease in the number of people who want to access health-care services due to the concern that they may be ‘outed’ for being here undocumented. I would even argue that our public-safety services suffer, because the cooperation between our residents and law enforcement is impacted negatively. For instance, a victim of crime or a witness to crime, who might be here undocumented, might not be willing to cooperate with law enforcement. So it’s a very huge issue, and it goes back to the inability of a U.S. Congress and an administration to put together what would be a comprehensive immigration policy that would bring about certainty for the people in our valley, our state and in our country.”

Gallegos said she and her colleagues at TODEC have seen the damage this rhetoric is causing.

“There is a lot of fear out there, and (at TODEC), we believe that our role is to educate the community,” Gallegos said. “But that fear still exists, and it even impacts our local economy. We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce. The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.”

The hyper-politicization of the immigration issue has also led to another type of fear—a fear of speaking out. The Independent reached out to numerous agricultural and retail businesses, and they all declined to go on the record for this story.

The same thing happened when we tried to talk to valley health-care providers about the effects ICE enforcements have had on immigrants seeking treatment and services: Only one person agreed to go on the record, and that was Doug Morin, the executive director Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, an organization in Indio that offers no-cost health care to adults who are uninsured or underinsured. He said his clinic has noted a substantial and ongoing decline in patient visits since the Trump administration took office in January 2017.

“I would say we’re still 20 percent below the number of patient visits we had during the pre-Trump days,” he said.

The decline has continued despite a concerted effort on the clinic’s part that included hiring an outreach specialist to make door-to-door contact with underserved populations to assure them that both they and their personal information would be safe if they came to get medical attention.

“We even changed our fliers that we had out for patient recruitment,” Morin said. “They used to just say, ‘Your health is our number one concern,’ and now it says, ‘Your safety and your health is our number one concern.”


So … where do we go from here? After all, Trump’s four-year term is less than half over, and there’s no hint that his administration will ease up on either the enforcement actions or the rhetoric anytime soon.

“We tell community that ‘our faith will keep us strong,’” Gallegos said. “There are a lot of young people coming up who want to make change. They see how this uncertainty and fear is impacting their family, friends and (everyone’s) mental health, and they’re taking it very personally. We tell them, ‘We have to continue resisting—and the way you’re going to resist is go to school. Finish your high school; go to college; and be a professional. You will prove everybody wrong,’ and that’s what our kids are doing. They are people of character, with morals and compassion. It’s become personal to them.

“Most importantly, we tell them to make sure to vote because that’s the way you create change.”

Garcia said some actions can be taken on the local and state levels.

“It is a federal question, but you know, states have rights,” he said. “When we have an emergency in California—as we’ve seen in recent months with the fires, the droughts and other natural disasters—we have the ability to declare a state of emergency and have the federal government support that position via policy and/or resources needed to address that emergency. In California, I believe that the issue of labor shortages in very specific industries that are highly occupied by immigrants could be considered such an emergency. I think that in itself is reason to work as a state in addressing our labor needs. These labor shortages are having a significant impact on our local economy right now—and not addressing the immigration issue ties into this threat very closely.

“I made an effort this past year to exercise that states’ right and develop a working group (in the state Legislature), that would ultimately need the blessing of Homeland Security and the federal government, to put together a program that would bring certainty of legal status, allowing those California residents working in these critical industries to continue contributing to our economy. Also, it would address ways to ensure that people are being paid salaries, receiving benefits and having housing that are respectable by California’s high standards. Stabilizing the existing unpermitted workforce by removing their tremendous fear and giving them and their families some certainty would be the first objective, and the second would be to develop a framework that would allow for us to address the real labor shortages that exist for these industries. I just think there’s a better way to go about this than disrupting the economies of the country, state and the Coachella Valley.”

Garcia’s effort did not get very far; his Assembly Bill 1885 didn’t even make it up for a vote in a committee.

“It continues to engage a number of individuals in a dialogue,” Garcia said. “… Unfortunately, we had a lot of people who got stuck on the notion that this issue is a federal issue only. They would not look at it as an economic and labor-shortage issue in California, as well as a national food-security issue. You know, we feed a large part of the world, and if our agricultural industries see a significant decline, because we can’t get enough people to do the necessary work, then we’re looking at being dependent on other nations for our food and commodities, which should be a major concern for people from a security standpoint, a health standpoint, and because we would be supporting other countries’ practices of underpaying and undervaluing their workforces.

“So the bill did not move. Next, we introduced a resolution, (Assembly Joint Resolution) 34. The resolution took a strong position supporting the same principles we supported in the legislation, and it had bipartisan support built around a coalition of assemblymembers and senators from farming communities throughout the state. This resolution would send the message to Washington, D.C., about what California is thinking, and wanting to do, and we encouraged our federal counterparts to engage with us in this conversation. It was passed and sent to the governor’s desk. Resolutions are position papers. As a result, they are not as controversial as trying to set something in stone as a law.”

Meanwhile, Coachella Valley residents like Alan and his wife continue to live in fear.

“Thank God I haven’t had to go to the hospital or seek medical services of late, but if we had to, we would go to get medical help here. My son is attending school,” he said. “What upsets all of us the most is that we feel like we’re being held back, and we’re not able to move forward with our lives. (The federal government) now is putting all these obstacles in our way.”

Upper right—Immigration-rights attorney and Coachella City Council candidate Megan Beaman-Jacinto: “Every day, almost, there’s a new attack on immigrants—and the media’s exposure of that is definitely having mixed results. On the one hand, it’s great that people are finally seeing this and paying attention when they didn’t before. But on the other hand, for people who are personally impacted by it, it is really stressful to see all the time, everywhere you look. Below—“We talk to the farmers in the east end of Coachella Valley, and they tell us they’re concerned that they are losing their workforce,” said Luz Gallegos, the community programs director for TODEC Legal Center. “The stores, like Cardenas, tell us that they’ve lost a lot of business because of this whole fear factor. It’s affecting our community and the local economy.” Photos by Kevin Fitzgerald.

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