FRESNO (AP) — The rumor spread like wildfire via phone calls, text messages and social media postings and has persisted now for more than three weeks: Immigration agents are rounding up unauthorized workers in Central California farming communities.
In Madera, Dinuba, Reedley and parts of Fresno, streets emptied out, soccer games were cancelled and usually bustling businesses saw few customers. Area farmers say their employees are scared, with some not coming to work. Children are missing school.
The disruption has become so widespread and unrelenting that local law enforcement and business leaders took the unusual step of holding a news conference Friday to try to reassure the community that no raids have occurred.
"Every week we're getting dozens of calls from workers who are afraid because they say they heard that others were stopped on the side of the highway and hauled away," said Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, the group that represents growers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Cunha organized the news conference, which included a representative from the Mexican consulate as well as other community leaders.
Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency is aware of the rumors. While she would not discuss specific law enforcement efforts, Kice said ICE's priority is targeting immigrants who have committed crimes and "not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately."
Local law enforcement officials said ICE assured them the rumors are false.
"I spoke with immigration officials at our local office and have been told directly that they are not conducting massive sweeps in this area, they are not conducting this activity," Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.
The rumor started in Madera, a mainly Hispanic city of 61,000 just north of Fresno. The catalyst, most probably, was an operation by the Union Pacific Railroad Police, which ticketed people who illegally crossed the railroad tracks, Madera Police Chief Steve Frazier said.
The railroad police arrived in a white van and wore green suits, Frazier said, arresting one individual who was a deported felon and had an arrest warrant. Those who witnessed the action might have mistakenly believed the railroad officers were ICE agents.
Since then, employers, advocacy groups and churches have received a steady stream of frantic calls on behalf of immigrants who reported hearing about others being loaded onto vans, stopped at checkpoints in town, hauled away from popular stores and from their homes. But none of the callers had any proof.
"The rumor is patently false. There are no immigration raids occurring in the city of Madera," Frazier said. "We've been telling people not to worry."
Residents thus far have not heeded the call. They've hunkered down in their homes, afraid to go shopping or walk to the park. In at least one case, about a hundred workers walked off their jobs after receiving text messages and calls about the rumor.
"These rumors have had a big impact on our business and that of other store owners in Madera," said Amalia Asuncion, owner of Rincon Norteno in Madera. "We have lost a lot of clients because they're afraid to leave their homes. Instead of coming to shop, they're calling us and asking if we know anything about the raids."
Others are afraid to go to their doctor appointments, according to Van Do-Reynoso, Madera County's director of public health, who said her clinics have seen "a drastic decrease in the number of clients using our services."
Lazaro Salazar, an immigration lawyer who specializes in deportation defense, said he has not heard from anyone who has been detained in a raid.
"Nothing I've seen indicates there's any truth to these rumors," he said.