There's something kind of curious about the fact that the latest raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- the atrociously acronymed "ICE" -- came only a few days after Willie Nelson played Humboldt County. One day after Willie, KHUM's Mike Dronkers was asking, "Isn't there anything besides Willie Nelson that can bring the hippies and rednecks together?"
The correct answer, of course, is: The feds. Like Willie Nelson, Humboldt County's hippies and rednecks both loathe and revile feds of almost any stripe. It's that unifying message of hope that led to the county of Humboldt's official declaration of non-cooperation with the Patriot Act a few years ago. Is it too optimistic to believe that fed-hatred may yet help forge a Pax Humboldtiana, one based on a pledge of mutual defense against the dread interlopers from Washington, D.C.?
The ICE men suddenly erupted like mushrooms from a manure-strewn pasture early last Wednesday morning. Suddenly, everyone in Arcata was abuzz. A fleet of SUVs were stationed in Mosgo's parking lot, filled with guys who looked and acted like total dicks. An even larger fleet "staged" out by Toni's, off Giuntoli. Go time! They rolled on out, as expected, to Sun Valley Floral Farms, out in the Arcata Bottoms, where they shut down traffic for a few hours while they inspected the workforce. Vans, paddy wagons, even air support ... they went all out.
By the end of the day, somewhere around 125 feds, all of whom had been flown or driven into Humboldt County from elsewhere, had taken 23 suspected undocumented aliens into custody. That's right -- the ratio was five armored, tacked-out feds per minimum-wage agricultural worker. Mission accomplished. Way to go, guys.
ICE, which was known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in saner times, has been conducting an investigation into Sun Valley for some time. (See our June 26 cover story, "The Iceman Cometh," for background.) Apparently the investigation is classified as "ongoing," even after last week's raid; in any case, that is the rationale the agency uses to keep its search warrants under seal. What does this mean? One of two things, as far as we can figure. Either the "ongoing investigation" business is simple bureaucratic hogwash, a convenient excuse to keep the paperwork secret, or they're trying to build a larger case against Sun Valley itself.
Reading between the lines, it seems like the latter is more likely. ICE is trying to indict Sun Valley as some sort of criminal conspiracy, or it's trying to scare the company into thinking it will do so. "We don't expect any criminal arrests today," said ICE spokeswoman Virgina Kice, who herself was brought up to manage media relations on-site. There was a slight emphasis on the last word.
And after all, why else would the feds bother with Sun Valley? Newsflash, ICE men: This is the goddamn state of California, breadbasket of the nation, and the entire agricultural industry, from the onions in the ground to the chardonnay on the vine, runs on immigrant labor, much or most of it illegal. The undocumented workers detained last week at Sun Valley weren't taking anyone else's jobs. If not for them, there straight-up wouldn't be a Sun Valley. In Humboldt County, the white man's taste for agricultural work runs in a lazier direction.
A couple of weeks ago, the Pacific Legal Foundation, fearsome right-wing crusaders from Sacramento, came down on Humboldt County's Measure T, the 2006 citizen's initiative that banned corporations -- with the exception of "local" corporations, narrowly defined -- from contributing to political campaigns. The PLF filed a suit seeking to overturn the measure in federal court, on behalf of two local companies -- Mercer-Fraser and O&M Industries -- that nonetheless do not qualify as "local" under the measure's arcane guidelines.
On Tuesday we caught up with Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, whose group, Democracy Unlimited, led the drive in favor of Measure T two years ago. She likened the upcoming legal fight to those undertaken on behalf of women's suffrage and civil rights. "We believe that communities have the right and duty to protect democracy," she said. "Only when you have people standing up and saying what will and will not be tolerated in a democracy, do you have democracy." She said that she had spoken with John Bonifaz, a high-powered Massachusetts attorney and advocate of Measure T, and that his offer to assist the county in the upcoming battle still stood.
Put this alongside the omnibus death-dealing Times-Standard v. Eureka Reporter case, and this is looking to be a mighty exciting year for lawsuits.