ICE isn’t after farmworkers, ag secretary assures farmers gathered in Merced County

Some San Joaquin Valley farmers said Friday at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that they continue to struggle to find enough workers to harvest their crops, attributing the scarcity to the Trump Administration’s hard stance on deportation.

President Donald Trump last week delayed a nationwide Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweep intended to deport people living in the United States illegally, including families, saying he would give lawmakers two weeks to work out solutions for securing the southern border.

But tough talk like that can be difficult on farmers.

“All these crops, literally all these fresh fruits and vegetables are handpicked and most of these people that do these jobs are immigrants,” Los Banos-area farmer Joe Del Bosque said. “They’re concerned about the administration deporting them. It’s a huge concern.”

Del Bosque spoke Friday at the Merced County Fairgrounds in Los Banos, where Perdue and elected officials held a town hall for farmers. The farmer asked Perdue to relay his message to President Trump.

Most of the farmers in the building raised their hands when asked if they are experiencing the same difficulty.

Perdue said the president wants to reform immigration in a way to allow migrant farmworkers to come and go legally, stressing that immigration authorities are seeking out undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.

“The president understands how important foreign-born workers are in this country,” Perdue said.

When asked about people being deported who have not committed crimes, Perdue said he wasn’t aware of any.

Other farmers expressed frustration over moves by the Trump Administration. Arvin-area farmer Kent Stenderup said his almond farm is feeling the impact of tariffs.

“The president said he would take care of us, he would help us,” he said. “We support the president and his motives. It’s worse than it was a year ago.”

China imports $2 billion in ag products from California alone – mostly fruit, nuts and wine.

“We need to restart those negotiations back where we were and hopefully we get trade that helps not only almonds but really all of American agriculture,” Perdue said.

Not all the struggles of farmers falls on Trump. They are also subject to changes in the market, like the dairy farmers who asked the secretary for help saving their industry.

Fresno-area farmer Mark McAfee, who is also with the California Dairy Campaign, said the state lost 2,700 of its 39,000 dairies last year.

“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. Consumers are rejecting 50,000-head dairies,” he said. “The environmental impacts are pretty treacherous when you really look at it.”

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.