Santos and Marcelina Garcia left their home at dawn this week to search for work in the grape fields of California’s Central Valley. Minutes later, they were dead after pursuit by federal immigration agents.
The Garcias were farmworkers in the grape vineyards of Delano, where Cesar Chavez led a five-year grape strike 50 years ago that started a civil- and labor-rights movement for immigrants. It’s the off-season for table-grapes in the historic town.
The Garcias were driving around town looking for a small job when an unmarked vehicle flashed its emergency lights. They pulled over, but when immigration officers got out of the car, the parents to six children fled the scene, crashing into a pole. They died on impact.
Thirty-five year old Santos and thirty-three year old Marcelina were undocumented immigrants and farmworkers who left Mexico for the United States in 2003, according to United Farm Workers Vice President Armando Elenes.
“The family just came here to work in the fields,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez in a press conference. “And yet when they get here, they’re abused, exploited, terrorized, and intimidated.”
ICE officials said that Santos“matched the description” of immigration officers’ intended target, but he was not the person agents were looking for. While Marcelina had no history of run-ins with immigration officials, Santos was “voluntarily returned” to Mexico three times since 2008, convicted of a DUI in 2014, and deported under an expedited removal order last year, ICE Spokesperson Lori Haley said in a statement.
Haley said ICE called Delano police after seeing the couple’s wrecked car. It is unclear whether or not immigration agents stayed on the scene until other law enforcement arrived and Delano police declined to comment.
Reports of ICE pulling over undocumented immigrants searching for farmwork in unmarked cars have increased in the past few weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union Southern California said in a statement. Like the Garcias, drivers pull over for who they assume are police, but find out the officers are immigration officials afterwards, according to the ACLU.
The couple is survived by six children, ages 8 to 18. "Santos and Marcelina's 18-year-old daughter will be taking custody of all her siblings along with her 19-month-old son. The children plan to send their parents back to Mexico for their final resting place," according to a GoFundMe page created for the children's rent and food needs.
The Garcia’s family held a vigil Wednesday for the couple at the site of the car crash, Univision 21 Fresno reported.
Federal immigration activity in Delano and Kern County has increased this month, according to UFW. Two weeks ago, ICE arrested over 150 undocumented immigrants in Central Valley raids. Over two dozen of those individuals detained were farmworkers from Kern and its neighboring counties, KBAK reported.
Local law enforcement and government officials in California have refused to assist ICE, including Delano Interim Chief of Police Jerry Nicholson, who addressed rumors that his squad was helping immigration officials in a Mar. 2 Facebook post:
“I can assure the citizens of Delano that our Department and its police officers are NOT assisting ICE in their operations. I can also assure the citizens of Delano that ICE Agents are NOT utilizing Delano police vehicles nor our police uniforms. Likewise, our police officers are NOT targeting and arresting individuals on behalf of ICE,” wrote Nicholson.
Nicholson and others, like Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, who warned her constituents on Twitter about the recent ICE raids, refrain from working with ICE through the state’s sanctuary laws. The Justice Department sued California over the measures last week, calling them unconstitutional, The New York Times reported.
But for the Garcias, those laws no longer apply. “Marcelina and Santos will never be home with their children again,” said Rodriguez.