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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 14th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 32

'We have to live with the fear': Despite efforts by the Santa Maria ICE office, undocumented immigrants remain afraid of deportation


Editor’s note: The last names of some of the people in this story have been omitted in order to protect their identity.

It’s nearly 7 p.m. as Francesca, fresh off of work, pauses to speak about her experience living and working in Santa Maria illegally. Her long black hair is pulled back into a loose braid, and a knitted headband pushes back the flyaway strands off her face. Her skin is the color and texture of soft, worn leather. Her frame is slight, and she seems weary but she carries the burden of desire to have her story represent what it means to be an undocumented immigrant in the Santa Maria community.

Her story, and the stories of others like her, are summarily the same: 

“There is no tranquility. We are always worried that when you go out to the street they can be there.” Those were Francesca’s words, but they could be and have been uttered by many undocumented immigrants. 

View a slideshow of the Santa Maria ICE facility.

Their world revolves around work, family, and living in a heightened state of fear. Fear when they go to the gas station, to the store for milk, and even to their workplace. The “they” immigrants often refer to are Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. 

The agency’s Santa Maria office opened in June, despite protests surrounding its approval last year. Since then, ICE has been performing outreach to assure the immigrant community that its only mission is to target convicted criminals who are in the country illegally and take them off the streets. ICE representatives have held public workshops, attended city and county government hearings, and spoken to community organizations that represent the immigrant population.

Despite those efforts, however, the immigrant community is unconvinced and continues to live in a state of constant alert.

On a mission

Francesca is a single mom raising three children: one going to college, one in high school about to graduate, and another, “the baby,” she said, who is just 6 years old. She came to Santa Maria from Mexico, similarly to many immigrants, with a mission in mind: to provide a better life for her family, and to live the American Dream. She said that dream aligns with her dream, which is to learn English, to become a citizen, and to see her children become educated professionals. To achieve this she has submitted her paperwork to become a legal resident, and she works in the fields to support her family. 

Every day she gets up at 4 a.m., gets her youngest to a sitter, then heads to work, where she spends 10, sometimes 12, hours harvesting crops. Then, she comes home and fixes dinner, prepares her kids for school, and gets ready to do it all again.

Olga Santos helps immigrants navigate through a system that can sometimes be unfair to them. When they talk about the fear they have of being deported, she can relate, remembering that as a girl she feared the same thing would happen to her parents.

If she gets deported, her children will be alone. “My fear is leaving home and not coming back,” she said. 

Immigrants like Francesca aren’t who ICE is looking for, ICE Assistant Field Office Director Jorge Field said.

“We’re not looking for the mom and dad going to work looking to make a better life for themselves. We’re not looking for that,” Field said.

ICE’s mission is to protect the public safety in the community, he said, and within that mission they have three priorities: terrorists, known gang members, and people with felony convictions or significant misdemeanor convictions.

“If you’re not one of those priorities, we’re not looking for you,” Field said. 

Sometimes people suspected of a heinous crime, like a child predator, even though they haven’t been convicted, may be targeted as well, because it’s in the community’s best interest to get that person off the streets, Field said. 

That doesn’t stop people from living with the notion that one day their world will be disrupted by a person with a badge, gun, and the power of the law as a shield.

Dealing with uncertainty

Martita is the daughter of parents who were undocumented immigrants, so she knows the fear of uncertainty that a first-generation American child faces, worrying about her parents’ potential deportation. As an adult, she faces that uncertainty again.

Recently she married her boyfriend, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He crossed into the United States carrying a watermelon—his hydration for the brutal three-day trek. These days she is fearful whenever he leaves the house. “It still goes back to fear,” she said through tears. “I can take care of myself, I have schooling, a degree, good work experience. But my partner, just the risk of losing him … .” The fear is always there for many immigrants and their families. For Martita, that fear of her husband getting a flat tire, getting help from police, and having them find out he’s not in the country legally is always there. For Francesca, that fear is triggered every time she gets a call warning her about leaving the house.

Travel around the outer city limits of the Santa Maria Valley and you’ll see dozens of farm fields where undocumented immigrants like Francesca make their living. “I need the city and the city needs from me, too, because of my work. And I’m doing a job, I’m not doing anything bad,” she said, adding that law enforcement needs to focus on getting criminals off the street.

It was 5 a.m. when Francesca received a call that ICE agents were near her house. She wondered whether or not she should go to work that day. If she did, she felt that she risked being deported. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t get paid, and as a sole provider that would make a big impact. 

It was her foreman who called her that day. Many immigrants report that their foremen or supervisors call and alert them to the presence of ICE agents. Sometimes they are told the agents are at Starbucks; sometimes it’s Vallarta Supermarket; sometimes it’s at the fields; and sometimes officers are spotted in the neighborhood.

ICE has a simple explanation for this: “Well, our officers like to drink coffee also,” ICE Deputy Field Office Director David Marin said at a recent media tour of the ICE facility. “They’re a part of this community. They live in this community also. So they’re going to be out shopping; they’re going to be out at a Starbucks. And if it happens to be during work hours and they maybe have their uniform on, it’s not because they are doing a raid or checking anybody’s immigration status. They’re going to get lunch.”

In an interview with the Sun, Field echoed those comments, saying that these men and women live in the community they serve and therefore frequent many of the shops, businesses, and restaurants in the area. “When they are working, they have to eat. Our guys have to live in the community too. It’s in their best interest to keep it safe,” he said.

Still many immigrants and immigrant advocates claim otherwise. Maybe they’ve heard of a friend whose relative was deported, or maybe they’ve had a relative fall into that situation, but the stories abound. 

Marin said that there are a lot of reasons that an undocumented immigrant without a criminal background would get deported. He said sometimes, if agents are making a bust of a criminal and someone else is there who happens to be undocumented, they may get caught up in the bust if they’ve got obvious signs of gang affiliation, like tattoos, or if there is illegal activity taking place.

Mostly, though, he said that a lot of the stories of ICE officers appearing places and rounding up hardworking field workers who lack documentation are rumors.

Field said that many times those rumors are spread by businesses or organizations with something to gain.

Getting victimized

Deportation is a constant fear for immigrants, but so is having someone take advantage of them. Because of their status, and the fact that they don’t know who to trust in a society so different than what they are used to, they’re often victimized. 

It could be in the form of rumors about ICE sweeping up immigrants, as Field alluded to, but sometimes it’s financial or physical victimization. 

Martita, whose husband came to the U.S. from Guatemala, said that victimization often starts when people are trying to cross into the U.S. People who take money to bring immigrants across borders, aka coyotes, will ask for large sums of money—usually several thousand dollars. Sometimes something happens and they don’t get across the border, sometimes there isn’t even an attempt. Either way, there are no refunds. 

“What are they going to do?” Martita asked. “Who are they going to tell?”

In the United States, that trend of victimizing continues. 

Mary Jacka, activist and president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said that immigrants put up with difficult working conditions in the fields often, and sometimes nonpayment of wages because they can’t, or they are afraid to, speak up. This is especially true for women, who, in some situations, endure sexual harassment from foremen. 

“They say, ‘If you want to work here, then you have to put up with me,’” Jacka said. 

Jacka added that she doesn’t think the owners or growers know that this sometimes happens with some foremen or supervisors. 

Life outside of work is not any better. Jacka said that many undocumented immigrants will also suffer through unlivable conditions in their homes for fear of speaking up to their landlords. Others will fall prey to people claiming to help them get their visa, taking their money, and failing to fulfill that promise.

Children worry, too

Francesca said that along with worrying about what will happen to her kids if she gets deported, she also worries about the stress it puts on them. 

“My 6-year-old is very scared that they are going to detain me. ‘What are we going to do, mom?’ He says to me, ‘What can I do?’” Francesca said. 

Olga Santos is an organizer for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). She touches base with many undocumented immigrants throughout Santa Barbara County to assess and ensure that human rights are being met. Though she is now a professional woman standing up for others, she remembers being a vulnerable girl, scared that her parents wouldn’t come home one day. 

She fought to make the words flow faster than the tears on her face: “I remember when I was younger, when my parents had to go through this with me, and it’s just a horrible feeling that when I hear these families share their fear I understand that. I can relate to that,” Santos said.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement building opened in June of this year in Santa Maria. The organization targets convicted criminals who are in the country illegally, but many immigrants don’t think that’s so. ICE representatives tried to reach out to the community to set the record straight.

She added that no matter how hard a parent tires to hide fear or emotion from their children, the children know. “My parents tried to make it like it wasn’t a big deal. But I knew,” she said. 

Often out of necessity, parents have to make plans with their children, “just in case.”

Alejandra came to the United States when she was just 3 years old. She assimilated fast and hoped to go to college. For now, that isn’t a possibility because she can’t get the financial aid needed to pay for college without citizenship. 

She has managed to get a work permit and holds out hope that she can eventually achieve her dreams. But she hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a young girl with parents who taught her what to do if they were detained. 

“When I was young, going to school, my mom had a game plan. A list of phone numbers of people to call in case it happened. She’d tell me, ‘There’s money in this drawer,” Alejandra said.

In the past, the formerly named U.S. Border Patrol used to make sweeps, broad collective efforts to identify and deport immigrants, in the Santa Maria area. It’s been several years since there has been an office in Santa Maria but the fear remains, ICE officer Field said. He said those sweeps, in addition to rumors, is a lot of the reason why those fears remain. 

During the ICE media tour, Field Office Director Marin told reporters that things have changed. He said there have been just as many instances in which an ICE officer came to a house to collect an individual, saw that there were children there, and simply asked the individual to check in with them at another time. 

As much as possible ICE wants to make their efforts smooth and uneventful—especially when it comes to detaining their real targets—because things can easily get unsafe for officers. For the men and women committed to bringing criminals—who happen to be undocumented immigrants—off the streets, there are the same dangers inherent to police officers or sheriff’s deputies.

“We are targeting criminals at their residences in most cases. We’ve had officers shot. The inherent danger of going into someone’s house, you don’t know them, you don’t know the layout—there is a wariness of going into a strange house to do your job,” Field said. 

Becoming part of the community

Francesca bristles at the thought that some people say immigrants come to this country illegally only so they can leech off the system. 

“I feel like I’m a part of the community here, because I live here. I need the city and the city needs from me, too, because of my work. And I’m doing a job, I’m not doing anything bad,” she said.

Many immigrants hope to live that same American Dream most Americans think is dead and gone. The process to gain citizenship or to get paperwork that legalizes their stay in the country can be long and complicated, according to Raul Razo, of La Hermadad, a Santa Maria organization that helps immigrants with the path to citizenship. He said if they have a relative in the United States it helps, but that many don’t even know if they do or not. 

Jacka of LULAC said she remembers her father crossing the border back and forth between the United States and Michoacán in order to support his family. She said many like her father are leaving their small villages or towns, where there are often drugs, crime, or no work, because they can’t afford the length of time they’d have to wait to get a work visa.

“They’re going to escape. It’s very difficult and frustrating for everybody,” she said. “When your child or children, or yourself, or elderly parents or grandparents are starving and you can’t afford to take them to medical facilities—what would you do?”

She said the fear, and the toll it takes on the mind, body, and soul is hard to comprehend.

“Can you imagine being frightened constantly. And thinking, ‘What if I get picked up?’” Jacka said.

Field said that ICE officers are a part of the community as well. He said they’d like to have a better relationship within the area they serve by reaching out to the immigrant population directly in order to better convey their message, without that message getting filtered through another organization.

But until that trust is built, many immigrants will continue to live in fear—but they argue that it’s still better than what they left behind.

“Yes. It’s worth it. We have to risk it. We don’t have another option. Even if we have to live with the fear,” Francesca said.

Staff Writer David Minsky contributed to this story. Editor Shelly Cone can be reached at


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