Mike Poindexter, CEO of Poindexter Nut Company and a third-generation walnut grower, stands in a walnut orchard in Selma, just outside Fresno. Poindexter says he feels caught in the middle over California’s fight with the Department of Justice over immigration. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)
In late January, Mike Poindexter, a third-generation walnut grower in the Central Valley town of Selma, received some bad news. It came in the form of a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It said federal agents would be auditing his business.
Soon after receiving the letter, Poindexter hung a notice to workers about the I-9 audit above the time clock where staff punch in before their shifts. Within two days, 18 people had quit, likely out of fear authorities would discover they lacked permission to work.
"You get attached to people," said Poindexter, the CEO of Poindexter Nut Company. "I understand there are a lot of people who say, 'Hey, these people are illegal, they have to go.' I understand what they're saying. But they're saying that about people they don't know. They're saying that about some nameless, faceless thing out there."
Back in the spring of 2008, Poindexter was audited by ICE for the first time. So he turned in a stack of paperwork and waited for months. He didn’t hear back from officers until August. When the agents got back to him, they said 70 percent of his staff would have to go that same day. He says the turnover cost his company $2 million and it took three years to bounce back from the losses.
He now uses E-Verify, the federal website used to verify work authorization, and he thought that would ensure he was hiring a legal workforce. But Poindexter still compares the most recent audit to a sword hanging over his head.
“ 'Cause you've been hurt, bad. And you don't want it to happen again,” he said. “You've done everything right you can. And you think, I'll be OK this time. I probably will, but you don't know. And until we get that all clear, it's hanging over you. That stress. What's gonna happen?”
Despite the ongoing stress of the audits, Poindexter’s frustration is not directed toward ICE. Instead, he blames California lawmakers for provoking the federal government by enacting statewide sanctuary policies.
"You have a bear and you have a person throwing rocks at a bear. And then when the bear lashes out and you get slashed by it, you want me to be mad at the bear?” Poindexter said.
The notice Poindexter posted, informing workers of the audit, is now required by state law in California. It’s just one of the rules recently put in place to protect immigrant workers in the state, regardless of their immigration status. Starting this year, employers can also be fined up to $10,000 for voluntarily handing over certain employee records to ICE, or allowing federal agents into private areas of a workplace without a warrant.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against California, arguing that the state’s so-called sanctuary laws are unconstitutional and block ICE from doing its job. The news came just days after 232 people were arrested in an ICE operation throughout Northern and Central California. The Bakersfield Californian reported at least 24 farmworkers were detained on their way to the fields.
In a statement, ICE pointed to new legal barriers to working with local jails and police departments in the state, and said that situation had “forced” the agency to conduct raids in neighborhoods and at workplaces.
The majority of workers keeping agricultural businesses running in California are unauthorized immigrants, according to Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. California growers, through their business associations, have long supported a path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers who agree to keep working in agriculture for several years.
But Poindexter is not alone in his frustration with state lawmakers, according to Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League -- a nonprofit that represents the interests of Central Valley growers. Many agricultural businesses are concerned that the standoff over sanctuary policies between California and the federal government is triggering retaliation in the form of more audits. And the attention is unwanted.
“I'm gonna say the largest percentage of our farmers and businesses do not support the sanctuary state. At all,” Cunha said.
“You're saying you're protecting people from being hauled off. Well, you may stop that part of it. But you're not gonna stop the business audits. And you've done more damage than anything ever now. ‘Cause now I have to let go of all these people,” added Cunha.
In 2017, ICE conducted over 1,300 workplace audits nationwide, resulting in 311 arrests of workers. ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley would not confirm whether the agency is now increasing I-9 audits in California, but she did say that across the country, “ICE is stepping up efforts to enforce the laws that prohibit businesses from hiring illegal workers.”
Poindexter believes California lawmakers should expect a backlash if they’re going to snub the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration laws.
"Why is ICE cracking down on California? Why aren't they cracking down on Texas?” he asked.
“We have the state of California actively obstructing the federal government from enforcing these laws. It doesn't surprise me that the bear's tired of the rocks getting thrown.”