You can see strawberry fields seemingly forever, details big and small – a rutted path, an orange tractor, a labourer’s checkered blue shirt – discernible on the plain.
Yet depending who you ask, there are two completely contrasting ways to view what is happening in Ventura County, in a corner of California.
Donald Trump’s immigration policies are spreading fear and threaten to scatter farm labourers, potentially disrupting America’s supply of fruit and vegetables.
Or it is business as usual: no change, no drama – a busy, productive economy humming as normal.
“Today I heard they’re picking people up in Malibu,” said Javier Carranza, 38, pausing from hacking at weeds in a row of strawberry bushes. “I don’t know if it’s true but I can tell you we’re afraid. People don’t want to go out to stores or restaurants.”
The previous week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detained several undocumented people a few miles from where he spoke, part of a nationwide sweep that netted 680 people.
The crackdown was sweeping up honest, hardworking immigrants alongside criminals, said Carranza, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “It’s unjust. If one orange in a bag is bad it does not mean all the oranges are bad.”
The policy was also dumb, he said, because Mexican and Salvadoran labourers may flee the fields, worsening a labour shortage that already hobbled some farms. “The (government) doesn’t know this work, doesn’t know that we’re out here every season, in the cold, the heat, the rain. You don’t see gringos out here.”
Carranza’s employer, Phil McGrath, is politically liberal, a rarity among California farmers who tend to be Trump-supporting conservatives. Trump, he said, could damage agriculture. “He’s scaring people and there’s already a labour shortage.”
George Samora, another farmer, agreed. “Nobody has enough workers.”
The fear gripping Latino communities is pervasive.
“Stress levels are reaching levels never seen before,” said an editorial, which warned that law enforcement agencies that routinely shot and killed black people would not hesitate to round up brown ones.
Advertisements for legal firms offering immigration services sat alongside a column giving tips: do not open the door to Ice agents unless they show a judicial warrant; do not speak to agents without an attorney; say nothing about where you were born; memorise relatives’ phone numbers.
Activists have distributed cards, printed in English, to be given to Ice agents: “Please be informed that I am choosing to exercise my right to remain silent,” one says. “I do not give you permission to search any of my belongings based on my fourth amendment rights,” another says.
Some businesses in Oxnard, Ventura’s biggest city, feel the impact.
“People are cancelling trips and holding off on booking,” said Alma Ibarra, of Tropicana Travel. Even those with green cards were reluctant to visit relatives in Mexico, she said.
In contrast, Cesar Nava, head of the Nava law firm, has seen business double as clients flock for advice about permanent residency and naturalisation. “It’s fear. If people believe there are Ice raids, they won’t go out of their houses.”
The contrasting view – that all is fine, or at least normal – is equally pervasive and a microcosm of the nation’s polarisation, or dual realities.
“It’s a lot of hype from the advocacy groups and the media,” said Rob Roy, head of the Ventura County Agricultural Association. “I deal with over 100 farms and not had one farmer come to me with any complaint about immigration issues or raids.”
Ice enacted similar raids under Barack Obama, who deported a record 2.5m people with little media outcry, Roy said. “But with Trump, suddenly the moral fibre of our country is coming apart. I don’t think Ice is going to start running into fields and taking away farm workers. I don’t believe that.”
He rejected reports that some farmers who voted for Trump thinking that his immigration rhetoric was hot air were possibly having buyer’s remorse. “Not in Ventura County, that I see.”
Tom Nassif, head of the powerful Western Growers Association, is a Trump adviser and tells farmers to not fret, that the president will not deport their workforce. “I think there’s less reason to worry than most people believe there is,” he told the Associated Press last month. The association declined to comment for this article.
Trump supporters interviewed at random in Oxnard expressed confidence in his immigration policies – and appreciation for Latino labourers, documented or not. “They’re good workers and we’re lucky to have them,” said Mary Bandy, 82. “If they behave themselves they’re welcome to stay.” She trusts Trump to strike the right balance.
Activists say there is mounting evidence that the government is targeting not just criminals but ordinary people, including Dreamers.
For California’s farmers to overlook that, they say, is blinkered. Or as the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields puts it: “Living is easy with eyes closed/ Misunderstanding all you see.”
Nava, the immigration lawyer, thinks both sides need a reality check. Social media and some regular media peddled panic, he said. For instance, Facebook posts reported a raid on El Pescador, a restaurant in Fillmore, but he was eating there at the purported time and there was no raid. “These false stories produce an over-reaction.”
The fear, however, was very real and may bite farmers, Nava said. “If people relocate then there goes the labour force.”
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