EDITOR’S NOTE: The names of undocumented people in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
Tulare, Calif.—Lidia Torres got scared when the new eligibility clerk at the labor camp knocked on her door. She would have to come to the office, Vanessa Carter told her, and reverify the immigration documents she’d provided when she first moved in six years earlier. So Torres showed them to her. “She said my documents were not valid,” Torres remembers. “No one had ever questioned them before. Then she gave me three days to get out.”
Carter threatened to give Torres’s papers to a lawyer, even to a judge. “I said they were same as most people here in the camp. But then Vanessa said she was checking theirs too, and they’d have to leave as well. I thought she’d call the migra. If I made a fuss she said I’d have to pay thousands of dollars.”
The Linnell Farm Labor Center, where Torres lived, consists of 191 single-story cinderblock apartments near Visalia, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Torres’s rent was $513 a month for two bedrooms. Fearing that her problems could escalate, she found another place to rent for $1,800 a month, and left.
Carter did as she’d threatened, and questioned the immigration documents of other families in the camp. In a March 23 e-mail, Ray Macareno, a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Tulare County Housing Authority (TCHA), said that 17 families received three-day eviction notices, which threaten $600 fees along with court and attorney costs for no-compliance. The notice, which residents were told to sign, says, “You admitted to HATC staff that you do not have permanent residency and further admitted that you had provided HATC with fraudulent citizenship documents.”
To rent an apartment in one of the camps, a family member has to show that she or he works in the fields, meets United States Department of Agriculture low-income guidelines, and is a US citizen or legal resident. The camps are filled with farmworker families who reflect the demographics of the farm labor workforce. Nationally, the USDA estimates that over 40 percent of farmworkers don’t have legal immigration status, and that this number is higher in California. The families living in camp apartments are often mixed, with some members having legal status and others without it.
In the workplace, farmworkers without papers face the same problem of showing documents about immigration status. Federal law, since 1986, has required employers to check workers’ papers before hiring them. In a workforce of 2.4 million nationally, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers provide what employers need, sometimes borrowing or buying the necessary IDs. And it’s not just farmworkers. All of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States face this problem when they get hired.
According to US Customs and Immigration Services, however, once a permanent-resident card (green card) is accepted by a prospective employer, future reverification is not required.
Given the demographics, constant reverification in the fields would mean that a million workers in agriculture would lose their jobs.
The USDA and housing authorities could follow the process established in employment law, where reverification is barred once the original documents showing legal status are accepted. There is no requirement for yearly reverification in the USDA-supported labor camps. Camp managers understand the reality, and in the past didn’t ask to reverify immigration papers once a family signed their first rental contract. As the years went by, tenants simply signed new rental agreements every year.
But suddenly, in Tulare County, the Housing Authority changed the rules.
Mario Padilla and Concepcion Vargas, a couple in their 60s, signed their first Linnell rental contract 19 years ago, after arriving from Sinaloa and getting work in Tulare County’s grapevines and orange orchards. “I showed what I had to,” Padilla says. “No one raised a question about it. The people in the office see our tax returns every year, and they could see that I was filing with a TIN, so they knew we didn’t have a good Social Security number.” The IRS allows people without Social Security numbers to use Temporary Identification Numbers (TINs) instead.
“All of a sudden,” he recalled, “we were told that our old papers were no good, and that they’d investigate us. We felt intimidated, but we protested. We have a right to our home, because of our years living and working here.”
Two community organizations, the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance (CVEA) and the Unidad Popular Benito Juarez (UPBJ), say they’ve gathered documentation from over 50 families evicted or threatened with eviction from the Linnell and three other Tulare County camps.organizations charge that housing authority personnel verbally abused residents, threatened them with calling immigration agents, disqualified them from Section 8 rent subsidies, and entered their homes without permission. “This is a basic violation of peoples’ right to housing,” CVEA codirector Mari Perez told the board.
Similar enforcement actions could affect thousands of other farmworker families far beyond Tulare County. “People have been telling us about evictions like this in other parts of the valley,” said UPBJ Executive Director Hector Hernandez. “It’s not visible, but it feels like a wave.” Increasing the potential for an eviction wave is a law passed during the Trump administration.
Almost any small question raised by representatives from the housing authority led to eviction. Fabiola Cortez, who’d lived in her apartment at the Woodville camp for eight years, was told she no longer qualified as a farmworker. “We had to leave in three days, when all the storms were pouring rain. We stayed in the parking lot in my van, me with my three kids,” she recalls.
One possible explanation for the rush to evict residents surfaced at a March Housing Authority meeting, when board members revealed that the USDA told them of a third immigration status that makes it possible to rent space in the labor camp. Workers with H-2A visas also qualified, the board announced. An amendment to Section 514 (f)(3)(A) of the Housing Act of 1949 makes it possible for growers to use the nationwide system of farm labor camps not for farmworkers who have worked and lived in the US for years but as barracks housing for contract temporary labor under the exploitative H-2A visa program.
The number of H-2A workers in the US is increasing rapidly. Last year, growers received 371,619 certifications allowing them to bring in contract laborers, about a sixth of the country’s farm labor workforce—a number that has doubled in five years and tripled in eight. These workers, whose pay is set close to minimum wage, can work only for the grower who recruits them, usually in Mexico, and must leave the country after their work contract ends. They can be fired for protesting, organizing, or simply working too slowly. Fired workers lose their visa and must leave the country, and then are usually blacklisted by recruiters. This makes them very vulnerable to pressure and illegal conditions.
The regulations governing H-2A visas require growers to house the workers for the duration of their stay, limited to less than a year. That housing requirement has been bitterly opposed by agribusiness because of its cost, and because the existing rural housing is very limited.
Farmworker housing is in crisis in rural California, as in almost every agricultural state. Despite $100 million budgeted for it in 2021, grape pickers in the San Joaquin Valley still sleep in cars during the harvest. Yearly earnings for agricultural laborers in the state average $20,500, making it virtually impossible to rent homes at market rates. The consequence is severe overcrowding, which had deadly effects during the pandemic.
One study by the California Coalition for Rural Housing found that “most households of farmworkers interviewed included non-family members who were for the most part other farmworkers. There are consistently stunningly high rates of residences that are above the severely crowded condition of 2.0 people per room.… Often more than 5 people per bathroom.” Another study stated, “San Joaquin Valley communities face increasing housing challenges, yet there are ever fewer State and Federal resources that support the development of needed affordable housing.”
As growers bring in increasing numbers of H-2A workers, they are competing for housing against local workers, even taking over small motels in many rural towns. To subsidize their costs, growers have tried to access public housing funds. In Washington State, they won a fight in 2016 to use state funds for farmworker housing to build barracks for their H-2A workers. California passed AB 1783 to stop growers from using the Joe Serna Farmworker Grant Housing Program for the same purpose.
Ilene Jacobs, director of litigation, advocacy, and training for California Rural Legal Assistance, says that programs like the Tulare County labor camps “were designed to provide housing for farmworkers and their families here. It defeats the purpose of these programs to let employers use them for H-2A workers. It’s really a double subsidy—growers get the benefit of the H-2A program, and the added benefit of using public housing.”
There are no H-2A workers living in Tulare County camps, Macareno said. But when I asked if the Housing Authority had talked at any point with growers about housing their H-2A workers, I received no reply. “If we got any applications, we’d look around and see what’s available,” HATC general counsel Julia Lew told me. Rudy Flores, a young activist living in the Linnell camp, says the units where families were evicted are still standing vacant. Macareno confirmed that there are 31 vacant units in six county-run camps, with 107 families still on waiting lists.
In one of its meetings packed with protesters, board president John Hess said the Housing Authority had received permission from the USDA to allow the families, evicted because of immigration status, to sign new one-year contracts. They could move back in, at least until those contracts expire and they once again might have to show their papers. “In effect, they [the USDA] were not going to enforce the rules, at least temporarily,” Hess told me. But Flores says he knows of no families who have been permitted to return to the Linnell camp, as of the end of March.
The Biden administration seems intent on continuing policies from the Trump administration favoring the H-2A program.
At an April 2017 White House meeting Trump told growers that, although he was targeting undocumented people for deportation, he would make the H-2A program easier for them to use. In that meeting Steve Scaroni, CEO of Fresh Harvest, one of the nation’s largest contractors of H-2A workers, told Trump he would bring even more of them to the San Joaquin Valley if he could find places to house them.
The following year Congress passed the amendment to Section 514 (f)(3)(A) of the Housing Act of 1949 that allowed the USDA to open the camps for growers to use for their H-2A workers. Trump signed the bill. While he was still in the White House in 2019 Bruce Lammers, head of the USDA’s Rural Development division, wrote a set of instructions to housing authority managers, advising them on regulations for implementing the new rule.
“Farmworkers who are admitted to this country on a temporary basis under the H-2A program, are now eligible to occupy…units which are currently or becoming unoccupied or underutilized,” it says. Because H-2A workers arrive in the country needing housing right away, growers may sign the leases to guarantee payment, and housing managers are permitted to “work with the sponsor on providing housing for the incoming H-2A workers.”
Once President Biden took office, the administration began sending emissaries to Central America, to provide alternatives for potential migrants other than leaving in the migrant caravans, for which the administration has been attacked by Republicans. One alternative was leaving, but with H-2A visas.
Samantha Power, former Obama adviser and now administrator of the US Agency for International Development, thanked one meeting of growers at the USDA last September for working with the Biden administration on “a critical priority—expanding the pool of H-2 farmworkers from Central America, specifically from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras…. We are committed to helping maintain a strong pipeline of experienced farmworkers to support you.” A recent policy brief by the Migration Policy Institute even recommends paying growers’ costs of transporting the workers to and from the United States.
Since these policies will add to the numbers already being brought by growers from Mexico, the competition over scarce farmworker housing will undoubtedly grow as a consequence. Growers themselves are reluctant to spend money to build any new housing for H-2A workers. For agribusiness, competing for the existing housing stock is easier, cheaper, and quicker.
The evictions at the Tulare County labor camps may therefore be only the beginning of a much longer and bigger fight.