Mass layoffs hit undocumented farmworkers in Santa Maria

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(Photo by Paul Wellman, the Santa Barbara Independent)

Last week, hundreds of undocumented farmworkers in Santa Maria were laid off. After a Homeland Security investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE agents ordered Bonita Packing Company, a large farm known as Bonipak that grows, processes and ships millions of cartons of vegetables worldwide, to terminate 291 of their farmworkers with invalid Social Security numbers.

This came just three months after a similar layoff in Santa Maria at Adam Brothers Farms, which is co-owned by County Supervisor Peter Adam, where as many as 300 farmworkers were let go.

According to Santa Barbara Independent reporter Kelsey Brugger, ICE investigations like these are uncommon in Santa Barbara County. These layoffs seem to have stemmed from a formal complaint sent to ICE by a disgruntled employee at Adam Brothers Farm.

“That prompted that investigations,” said Brugger. “ICE says they have to follow up on these complaints, and they did. They go through a social security match and audit the records.”

While undocumented workers lost their jobs, they don’t necessarily face detainment or deportation. The investigations were conducted by the Worksite Enforcement branch of ICE. While the Priority Enforcement Program targets those with criminal charges, Brugger says people who are laid off don’t face that separate side of ICE.

“The interesting thing is that several of these farmworkers are actually working at the very same farm they used to be,” said Brugger. This is because workers can get hired by a contractor that hasn’t been subject to an ICE audit, and placed back at farms like Adam Brothers and Bonipak.

This comes during a 25 percent farmworker shortage in Santa Barbara’s North County, which affects the local agricultural economy.

“I think a lot of people are saying that growers are put between a rock and hard place,” said Brugger. “They’re not blaming the growers individually, but they’re saying we need to find a solution to this problem.”

This issue is indicative of the broader immigration debate. Some advocate for tighter border security and stricter immigration laws. Others support comprehensive immigration reform and a clearer pathway to citizenship.

“The way it was best put to me,” said Brugger, “is if you ask ten people what the solution is, you’re going to get 20 answers.”