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In Immokalee, Florida, undocumented farmworkers live in fear

Life has changed in the national tomato producing capital since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. Univision visited this agricultural city, mainly home to Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants.
16 Feb 2017 – 06:29 PM EST

IMMOKALEE, Florida - Almost everyone here knows or works with an undocumented immigrant, or is one.

In this small agricultural town, it’s more common to see bikes and pedestrians than in most cities in Florida. That’s because thousands of undocumented immigrants here are afraid to drive, for fear a police officer might discover their undocumented status.

For the most part, these are the workers who collect the millions of tomatoes that supply shops and restaurants across the country during most of the year. With Donald Trump’s new immigration policies, fear has become their norm.

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Immigrant families ready plans in case of deportation

6:55 am The dangerous journey to school

Marcelino, 33, leaves home with his sons Elmert, 10, and Maydhely, 5.

"Let's go to school, let's go to school," Maydhely repeats before getting into her dad's van. A rooster cackles -- a common sight in this agricultural community.

It’s little more than two miles from home to Immokalee Community School, but the drive feels long. “In this span of five, ten minutes, I start sweating,” says Marcelino, his hands on the steering wheel. A white rosary hangs next to the wheel.

Because Marcelino is undocumented and doesn’t have a license, a routine drive turns into a risk.

A teacher greets them at the door with a kind “Good morning, sweetheart!”

Marcelino gets back in the car. He drives to the center of Immokalee, where dozens of day laborers gather. Mostly men, they wait for contractors to come get them to take them to the fields to collect tomatoes. That’s how he and his wife make a living.

10:30 am Trauma in class

Marcelino's two children go to a charter school mainly for children of farm workers. Elmert, his son, has struggled lately in math. Today he’s practicing fractions with his classmates.

At school, immigration policy is felt in the classroom. "What some students are experiencing is post-traumatic stress," says Barbara Mainster, who for nearly three decades was executive director of the school's educational organization.

The situation has affected some students’ academic performance, such as when a family member is deported. Others express a sense of fear they don’t dare mention at home. Although many are U.S. citizens, nearly all of the 253 students at this bilingual school are likely to be affected in one way or another by the harsh policies towards undocumented immigrants, Mainster says.

“I don’t want my mom to leave, I don’t want to feel like those kids who do not have their mom with them,” says Yeila, a fourth grader, who recently wrote a story about this fear of separation.

2:10 pm A warning on local radio

As a ranchera fades out, a radio DJ says to his listeners in Spanish: “These days the situation has become more difficult. Drive with caution.” He greets Immokalee’s restaurants and reminds listeners that they are tuned to Radio Conciencia, "La Tuya” (“Yours”), on 107.7.

The radio station is run by members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers out of a small studio in Collier County, with four microphones, a computer and two wooden marimbas to make live music. Collier is among the counties that maintains the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement to enter into a partnership with ICE and perform the duties of immigration officers.

The radio announcer reminds listeners that driving fast or without a seat-belt can lead officers to confront a car. Ultimately, they could detect that a driver is undocumented.

"In community meetings we tell workers not to get in trouble, to behave," says Guadalupe Gonzalo, one of the union workers. Years ago, the union helped with the adoption of the “Fair Food Agreement,” a partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies like Walmart and McDonalds, which ensures fair wages and working conditions for farmworkers.

4:30 pm Tomatoes to sell

There are no ripe tomatoes inside this tomato processing plant. It’s humid and loud, and the tomatoes here are green, so that when they reach stores all over the country they will have ripened to red.

The already ripe tomatoes are sold in Immokalee, in an informal, open-air market where Radio Conciencia blares. Clients come in their pickups and fill up on vegetables for restaurants and stores. Today, Víctor stands in front of a number of boxes of unsold tomatoes.

Born in Guanajuato, México, he’s been in Immokalee for 25 years. He says he’s more fearful now than ever. “Whatever will be will be,” says the father of four, “but [Donald Trump] has finished us.”

Immokalee, he says, is full of undocumented immigrants who are at risk of being deported, like him. He barely ever drives. Instead, his daughter drives him to the market and picks him up.

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5:25 pm Azteca Super Center empties

Latino men step off vans and trucks, wearing hats, jeans and boots smeared with mud after a day spent picking tomatoes. They enter the Azteca Super Center 2000, a supermarket on Main Street at the core of Immokalee’s Mexican community.

Some buy a “Jarritos” soda or corn tortillas. Others sit in an austere canteen where they fill up with a steaming plate of beef after a hard day’s work. Antonio, the cashier, says he feels the neighborhood’s fear these days. There are fewer customers at night, when immigrants normally prefer to sit together on the benches outside. Now they stay away to avoid detention.

“I imagine it’s because of Trump,” says Antonio, as a ranchera plays in the background.

At Casa Dulce, a bakery a few blocks away, bachata rhythms play and people buy squash empanadas and pan dulce. Erika says some of her clients are currently looking for legal guardians for their kids, in the case of deportation.

Sales haven’t lowered, but she expects they will: "There is fear. That's our community. That's what all Immokalee is. Farmworkers,” Erika says.

5:50 pm An important meeting

A father who smells of sweat and dirt arrives late to the meeting. One teacher offers him a sandwich, chips and water, and another looks around for an extra chair. The school principal stands in front of a powerpoint, telling parents (in Spanish) about upcoming state tests in math, reading, writing, and science. Then, Juana Brown, a teacher, takes the floor.

In Cuban spanish, Brown brings up the most important subject of the meeting: the growing fear of deportations.

“The kids know what’s going on,” she says.

A number of parents in the audience nod and agree.

“They’re scared,” she says.

Again, parents agree. One mother sits in silence, another looks to the ceiling.

The parents are given brochures that spell out the rights of the undocumented: to remain silent, to refuse to open a door, to seek a lawyer. “Don’t be scared, but it’s important that you’re informed,” the teacher insists.

8:00 pm Family dinner

Marcelino and his wife Cecilia have plenty of work to do when they get home from work: prepare dinner, help with homework and give their children a bath. Today Marcelino bought fried chicken at a fast food restaurant, and the kids lick grease from their fingers.

They live in a mobile home, surrounded by dozens just like it. They’ve hung mosquito nets. An air conditioner drips water. The two parents and the two children sleep in the same room, and share the small home with three other men, also farm workers.

After dinner, Marcelino sits alone.

“All the time I say to my children: don’t worry, focus on school,” he says. “I tell them not to worry, but I'm really worried.”


This story was based on interviews conducted over three days in February in Immokalee. Most interviewees appear without last names to protect their identity.

Contact the author at or on Twitter.