After Immigrant Couple Dies Fleeing ICE, Farmworkers Describe New Community Fears

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A memorial sits on the side of a busy country road in Delano, where two undocumented farmworkers died last month in a car crash shortly after being pulled over by ICE agents. A spokeswoman for ICE said one of the victims matched the description of a man the agency was looking for. He was not that individual. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

On the side of a busy country road in Delano, California, local farmworkers have built a small memorial, featuring dozens of votive candles surrounding bouquets of roses and balloons.

The shrine in the small Central Valley city was erected in memory of Santos Hilario Garcia, 35, and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto, 33, two undocumented farmworkers from Guerrero, Mexico, who died in a car crash last month, shortly after agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attempted to pull over their SUV.

On March 13, as the couple was driving around looking for work in the grape fields, a car behind them flashed its lights, signaling their vehicle to pull over. When they stopped, and ICE agents got out of the car, Hilario sped off. According to police, minutes later, he lost control of the couple’s SUV and crashed into a telephone pole. Their vehicle flipped over, killing them both.

A spokeswoman for ICE said Hilario matched the description of a man agents were looking for. It turned out he was not that individual. In a statement, the agency called the incident “isolated” and “extremely unfortunate.” According to ICE, Santos Hilario Garcia had been deported to Mexico three times since 2008 and was convicted of a DUI in 2014. ICE noted that Marcelina Garcia Perfecto "had no prior encounters with ICE."

Delano police also said that the ICE agents stated they terminated their attempts to stop the victims’ vehicle once Hilario began to flee.

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The incident hit the local community in Delano hard.

Hilario and Garcia had six children, ages 8 to 18. A teenage girl who recently stopped by the memorial with her parents asked not to be named, but said she went to school with the couple’s oldest daughter.

"It's heartbreaking. Now she has to take full custody of her siblings. It's really sad, it's honestly really sad," the girl said.

On Monday, community members held a wake for the victims at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano, which is accepting food donations for the couple's children.

The United Farm Workers Foundation recently held a "Know Your Rights" session at the same church. At the meeting, three UFW staff members performed a mock traffic stop role play.

UFW Foundation intern Jesús -- who didn't want to disclose his last name -- pretended he was a farmworker sitting in the driver's seat of a car that had just been pulled over by ICE.

As he rolled down an imaginary window, UFW Foundation fellow Karina Morales, acting as an ICE agent, asked him in Spanish, "Where were you born? How many years have you been here?"

"I choose to plead the Fifth," Jesús responded, his head hanging down.

United Farm Workers Foundation Fellow Karina Morales holds a card which explains an individual's Fourth and Fifth Amendment constitutional rights, regardless of immigration status. UFW Foundation organizers distribute this card to farmworkers in the Central Valley, which they can hand to an ICE agent if they're pulled over or if agents knock on their door.
United Farm Workers Foundation fellow Karina Morales holds a card that explains an individual's Fourth and Fifth Amendment constitutional rights, regardless of immigration status. UFW Foundation organizers distribute this card to farmworkers in the Central Valley, which they can hand to an ICE agent if they're pulled over or if agents knock on their door. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

In March, the Bakersfield Californian reported at least 24 people were arrested in Kern County, many of them farmworkers stopped early in the morning on their way to the fields. Organizers with the UFW Foundation said they have received similar reports.

"Since what happened with the [death] of Santos and Marcelina, it looks that ICE ... is stopping farmworkers on their way to work early mornings," said Nancy Oropeza, a UFW Foundation coordinator who keeps track of when farmworkers report they have seen ICE or been detained in Kern County.

Organizers believe the ICE agents that pulled Hilario and Garcia over were driving an unmarked vehicle. The agency won't confirm this, but said sanctuary policies have pushed ICE out of jails and into communities, increasing risk for the public.

"That's something we're concerned about, how ICE is doing these operations by portraying themselves as local police," said Eriberto Fernandez, civic participation and policy coordinator with the UFW Foundation.

"They turn on their emergency lights, they pull you over, you don't know if you're being pulled over for a speeding ticket, or broken tail light, or if it's an ICE official looking to see if you have papers or not," Fernandez said.

The lack of communication has created fear in Delano, a town where most people either work in the fields or know someone who does.

"They say [ICE] was at the Mexican stores," said Rosa Sandoval, a member of the church, referring to grocery stores popular with Latino and Mexican immigrant workers. Sandoval looked around and leaned in before whispering, "at Vallarta ... they were there."

"The farmworkers, they're really intimidated with what is happening, especially with the Delano case," said Jesús. "It's opened up a lot of eyes in the community. Just to look out for each other and get more informed."

Organizers held the "Know Your Rights" meeting at the church with the idea that farmworkers would consider it a safe space.

The trouble is, in this climate of fear, no one showed up.