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Farmworkers In California Fearful After Immigrant Couple Dies While Fleeing ICE

Jun 13, 2018
Originally published on June 13, 2018 6:04 pm

Two weeks ago, Celestino Hilario Garcia was pulling out of his driveway in Delano, Calif., on his way to work in the fields. That's when three SUVs and two cars with flashing lights closed him in on both sides.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled Hilario Garcia out of the truck. He was arrested, and deported back to Mexico by the end of the day.

This wasn't the first time ICE carried out an operation in this neighborhood. In March, Hilario Garcia's brother and his wife left their apartment complex in the pre-dawn hours to look for work in the grape fields. ICE agents in two unmarked Jeeps signaled them to pull over. The driver, Santos Hilario Garcia, initially stopped. But when the agents got out of their cars, he sped off.

The farmworkers' vehicle flipped and crashed into a telephone pole, killing both Santos and his wife Marcelina. The couple left behind six children, ages 8 to 18. After the accident, ICE explained the driver matched the description of a man they were looking for, but it turned out they had the wrong guy.

So, ICE came back for their original target — Celestino Hilario Garcia — who had been deported twice before and had three criminal DUI convictions. All this comes in the midst of a zero tolerance crackdown on illegal immigration.

"Nobody wants to be out there"

Out on West Cecil Ave, the site of the accident, dry, sun-bleached land contrasts with the lush green of table grapevines ready to be pruned by the hands of farmworkers.

"It's very hard for you to get people out there now," says Maribel Rios, a farm labor contractor who lives on this road. She says fear in the community has made things hard for her business.

"Out of 13 crews I had, right now I just have — I'm down to two," she says. "I'm now down to two right now, you know, and it's like, nobody wants to work no more, nobody wants to be out there. And then after this accident, it's worse. People are just fearing, am I gonna go home to my kids or am I not?"

No one is exempt from enforcement

At a rundown apartment complex in Delano, there's a cluster of tan, one-bedroom units. Sheets, instead of blinds, cover the windows. At one apartment, a woman peeks through a window before opening the door. Celestino Hilario Garcia's wife, Lucy, looks small and cautious, wearing a magenta shirt and Virgin Guadalupe necklace.

She describes her husband's arrest, but asks that we don't use her last name — a name different than her husband's — because she's fearful ICE will return. Her sister speaks to her in their native Mixteco, as their daughters play on the floor.

Lucy says she didn't think they would do this to her husband. She figured they would think, oh, well at least these children have their uncle.

Before her husband was deported, Lucy and Celestino were helping their 18-year-old niece, and all of her siblings, pay rent in their nearby apartment. With her husband also gone, Lucy says she'll go back to work in the fields. Money will be tight, but she says she'll work to provide for her kids, and support her niece in any way she can, so that the family can stay together.

A spokesperson for ICE confirmed Hilario Garcia's deportation and said no one who violates immigration laws is exempt from enforcement.

Copyright 2018 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A deadly car accident in the small farming town of Delano, Calif., has put immigrant farm workers and their employers on edge. In March, a couple was killed in a car crash as they attempted to flee Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Turned out, ICE had the wrong people. And then, as Alex Hall of member station KQED reports, the agents came back.

ALEX HALL, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, Celestino Hilario Garcia was pulling out of his driveway on his way to work in the fields. That's when three SUVs and two cars with flashing lights closed him in on both sides. The ICE agents pulled Hilario Garcia out of the truck. He was arrested and deported back to Mexico by the end of the day.

At a run-down apartment complex in Delano, there's a cluster of tan one-bedroom units. Sheets instead of blinds cover the windows. At one apartment, a woman peeks through a window before opening the door. Hilario Garcia's wife, Lucy, looks small and cautious, wearing a magenta shirt and Virgin Guadalupe necklace.

LUCY: (Foreign language spoken).

HALL: She describes her husband's arrest but asks that we don't use her last name - a name different than her husband's - because she's fearful ICE will return. Her sister speaks to her in their native Mixteco as their daughters play on the floor.

LUCY: (Speaking Mixteco).

HALL: This wasn't the first time ICE carried out an operation in this neighborhood. In March, Hilario Garcia's brother and his wife left their apartment in the pre-dawn hours to look for work in the fields. ICE agents in two unmarked jeeps signaled them to pull over. The driver, Santos Hilario Garcia, initially stopped. But when the agents got out of their cars, he sped off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 911 emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm calling to report a vehicle rollover.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Someone flipped his truck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: On Cecil, in front of North Kern State Prison.

HALL: The farm worker's vehicle flipped and crashed into a telephone pole, killing both Santos and his wife, Marcelina. After the accident, ICE explained the driver matched the description of a man they were looking for. Turned out they had the wrong guy. The couple left behind six children, ages 8 to 18.

Earlier this month, ICE came back for their original target Celestino, who had been deported twice before and had three criminal DUI convictions. All of this comes in the midst of a zero tolerance crackdown on illegal immigration.

LUCY: (Foreign language spoken).

HALL: Lucy says, "I didn't think they would do this to my husband. I figured they would think, well, at least these children have their uncle."

LUCY: (Foreign language spoken).

HALL: A spokesperson for ICE confirmed Hilario Garcia's deportation and said no one who violates immigration laws is exempt from enforcement.

Out on West Cecil Avenue, the site of the accident, dry sun-bleached land contrasts with the lush green of table grape vines ready to be pruned by the hands of farmers.

MARIBEL RIOS: It's very hard for you to get people out there now.

HALL: Maribel Rios lives on this road. She's a farm labor contractor. She says fear in the community has made things hard for her business.

RIOS: Out of 13 crews I had, right now, I just have - I'm down to two. I'm down to two right now. You know, and it's like nobody wants work no more. Nobody wants to be out there. And then after this accident, it's worse. People are just fearing, you know, am I going to go home to my kids, or am I not?

HALL: Before her husband was deported, he and Lucy were helping their 18-year-old niece and all of her siblings pay rent in their nearby apartment now that their parents are gone. With her husband also gone, Lucy says she'll go work in the fields. Money will be tight.

LUCY: (Foreign language spoken).

HALL: She says she'll work to provide for her kids and support her niece in any way she can so that the family can stay together.

LUCY: (Foreign language spoken).

HALL: For NPR News, I'm Alex Hall in Delano. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.