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Undocumented farm laborers wake up fearing uncertain future

Among the rows of strawberry plants in the Salinas Valley, California, the conversation focused on worries and legal questions after Donald Trump's victory.
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12 Nov 2016 – 05:53 PM EST
Undocumented workers near Oxnard, California, say the farms will lack laborers if Trump carries out his threats on deportations. Crédito: Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

SALINAS, Calif. - It was 7:00 am when Silvestre Guzman Méndez came to work in a field with hundreds of rows of strawberry plants covered with gray plastics.

Only then did he learn that Donald Trump would be the new president of the United States. It was on the lips of the dozens of workers, men and women who were barely visible beneath their hats and hoodies used to ward off the sun’s rays.

Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, had gone to bed at nine on Election night without waiting for the result. But after hearing the news, the 51-year-old now reckons his plan to retire in Mexico in a few years could be brought forward – against his will.

After all, the president-elect has vowed to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.

"If he carries on with all these threats, it’ll be better to return home," Guzman said. On a break from the morning sun, already hot enough to make your back prickly, he said, the alternative will be "to stay here living in fear that they will catch us on the roads in the sweeps."

Like Guzman, there are thousands of undocumented immigrants in the agricultural region around Salinas, California's central coast, the 'world’s salad bowl' made famous in the novels of local writer John Steinbeck. Trump’s surprise victory struck fear into the area and unleashed anxiety over what to do in the face of his possible measures against those 'without papers.'

"People are so ... distraught. That would be the word," Teresa Barrera, a Mexican immigration service provider from the nonprofit group Proyecto de Cuidadania in Salinas, said. "They are very afraid."

Barrera had preferred not to watch TV on Election night. But at six in the morning, she began to receive calls from farm laborers.
"What's going to happen?" They asked. "What do we have to do?"

But she had no answers for them. Trump will assume the presidency on January 20 and there is no specific timeline for taking any steps on immigration.

In his campaign plan, the man who is now set to be 45 th president of the United States vowed to deport 2 million undocumented immigrants with a criminal record and another 4 million who have overstayed their visas. He also said a further 5 million undocumented immigrants should leave the country. He made his promises even though all this would be a logistical nightmare for the government itself.

In the Salinas Valley, almost all farm workers are undocumented, according to Barrera. That is more than half of the 160,000 population.

One morning this week, Barrera’s telephone did not stop ringing. Parents were calling worried about their children who had taken advantage of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order that shielded them from deportation and allowed them to start building a normal life in the United States. These young people made sure their career opportunities stretched beyond the strawberry, artichoke and lettuce fields as they began working in offices, clinics and restaurants.

But Trump has promised to overturn all of President Obama's immigration executive orders.

"What's going to happen to my son?" they asked. "Will he get his work permit, will it be denied?"

"These folks, without permits, are left adrift," Barrera said. She herself arrived undocumented from Mexico City 28 years ago before taking advantage of President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty in 1986. "I don’t know what to tell them. I personally have no idea what’s next, what we can expect.”

The only hope is that Trump turns out to be less harsh and that his tough-talk was a "mask" to win votes, she said. "And let’s hope he’s like other presidents and doesn’t keep his promises."

The dark mood was everywhere following the electoral shock. In the village of Castroville, where a sign on Main Street boasts it is the "artichoke world center,” 61-year-old Maria Hernandez said her relatives were "completely sad."

"My 12-year-old granddaughter had told me: 'Ask God not to let him win, because otherwise anyone with black hair is going to have to leave.' And that was someone who was born here!"

Her husband Javier, a truck driver with the materials company Granite, had woken her up when Trump’s victory was confirmed. She could not go back to sleep. In the morning, a friend dropped by her house, angry: "I have to be brave. Did you see the one with the orange hair won?"

And when she arrived at a Hispanic supermarket in Salinas, she noticed the silence. The employees had not wanted to turn on the radio. The atmosphere was similar when she passed a salon on Castroville's main street. "It's sad because there had been so much hope."

"If they do deportations, it would be a big blow to work on the farms," hairdresser Susana Mondragon, 35, said. She also teaches at a gym and was late to a class Tuesday because she was voting for Hillary Clinton. "The strawberry, the lettuce fields would be left without laborers. That's the only work they (the undocumented) can do," she added.

For many, the main fear was of sweeps rounding up undocumented workers. Some responded with resignation.

Jose Manuel Hernandez, 24, from Oaxaca, took a break from the sun and the hard work in the field, resting in his car next to the road from Salinas to Monterey. "Anyway, what can you do?" he asked.

In the morning, one of his uncles in Mexico asked him via WhatsApp what was going to happen. "Nothing, he’s won and that’s it."
"As long as there are no raids, we have to keep working," he said.

Hernandez lives 45 minutes to the south, in Greenfield, and drives without a license. He frets he will be stopped, detained and end up being deported.

"You have to drive to work and they can stop you," he said. "You just don’t know what can happen."

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