Fresno Bee: Valley leaders gather to oppose Social Security letters targeting undocumented workers

Apr 16, 2019
In The News

Several central San Joaquin Valley leaders gathered Tuesday to proclaim their opposition to the reinstatement of the United States Social Security Administration’s “no-match” letters program, which the elected officials say targets the area’s many undocumented workers and will have a devastating effect on the local agricultural economy.

Fresno congressmen Jim Costa and TJ Cox, both Democrats, joined with state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and a handful of Valley city council members, representatives for both California senators, the Fresno County Farm Bureau, the Nisei Farmers League and WBC super lightweight world champion Jose Ramirez for a news conference in downtown Fresno. 

The cohort reported that tens of thousands of undocumented workers and dozens of local businesses, primarily in the agricultural sector, have already been affected by the letters. The typical letter informs an employer of how many of its workers provided social security numbers in their tax forms that do not match the administration’s records.

The letters began being mailed across the country at the end of March. According to the Nisei Farmers League, at least 37 local businesses that employ about 37,000 workers have received letters, and more than 22,000 — about 61 percent — of those workers were flagged as “no-match” employees.

Employers have 60 days to correct the issues, which Costa, Caballero and the others said has put tremendous stress on farmers ahead of major harvests. Many employers may choose to fire their undocumented workers to minimize their own risks.

“We all know that America is a nation of immigrants past, immigrants present and with every generation of immigrants,” Costa said, “families that are reflected here in this room — your families, my family — we add value to the United States with the hard work and determination that immigrants have always brought to this country.”

Costa said the letters mark Social Security’s movement into immigration enforcement, which is not its mandate, and may also complicate Congress’ attempts at immigration reform. He added that many undocumented workers, in addition to contributing to the economy in other ways, supplement Social Security by paying into it without any real hope of being awarded benefits.

Costa, Cox, fellow congressmen Josh Harder and Jimmy Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to the acting director of Social Security Thursday, asking: How the checks on tax information were being conducted, if Social Security was coordinating with any other agency such as Homeland Security, which businesses were receiving letters and what action will be taken after the two-month response periods lapse.

Cox said agricultural trade groups have routinely brought up two issues when visiting his and other elected officials’ offices: Immigration and trade.

“Frankly, this administration has been terrible for agriculture, both on the trade side and the immigration side,” Cox said. “This letter that the Social Security Administration sent out is no help whatsoever.”

He added that the letters were “just another tactic to further marginalize and scare our immigrant communities and our employers.”

Caballero noted that 80 percent of the nation’s lettuce is grown within her senate district, and 99 percent of the nation’s almonds, raisins and more than a dozen other crops come from California. But this was the first year in her several as an assemblywoman and senator that, she said, farmers have told her they were leaving produce in the fields to rot due to labor shortages.

She said the letters will only increase this problem, while also having a major effect on the small rural communities whose survival depends on ag.

Ramirez, an undefeated professional boxer who grew up working the fields of Avenal with his family, said the letters were affecting “honest, hard-working people.”

“Even though my career in boxing has led me down a different path in life, it has also given me a platform for me to speak,” Ramirez said. “For me to become the voice of many who might not be able to speak or who cannot or are too scared to fight for themselves.”

Ramirez said that in addition to agriculture, the letters also hurt the construction, restaurant, retail and manufacturing industries.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, said the letters will affect 8 million workers who contribute billions to the nation’s economy. He added that their employers may be turned over to the Department of Homeland Security, which may levy harsh penalties related to “harboring illegal aliens.”

“If this is a method to get to immigration reform, it’s a very sad situation for this country and across the world — (for the world) to know this is how we deal with it,” Cunha said. “When we should be dealing with it as (Costa) has, with a bill.”

The start of Tuesday’s news conference was briefly delayed, as Cunha and congressional staff members confronted Ben Bergquam, a far-right talk show host known for loud, public outbursts directed at Democratic elected officials. He told the staff he was a member of the media (he runs a website, Facebook group and has a talk show on a small AM station) but was told it was not a public event.

As staff told him to leave, he began to shout at Costa, Cox and Caballero, saying they were responsible for the murders and various other crimes committed by undocumented people in the United States.

After several minutes of shouting and threats by staff to call police, an apparent security guard escorted him out of the United Security Bank Building, where Costa and several federal agencies have offices. He then shouted at the news conference through a megaphone for its entirety while standing outside the building.