IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Football always has been a safe haven in this tiny farming community, an island of pure Americana for families trying to make it in America. After each week’s work in the fields is done — an effort that helps produce a significant chunk of the nation’s produce — the whistles and thuds of Friday night high school games take over.
“Football is its own drug,” Immokalee High Coach Rodelin Anthony says. “It’s a way to numb the pain [of] a lot of these kids’ issues, whether educational, emotional or immigration. For a couple hours, I forget immigration is real.”
But this fall, that window of escape in this tucked-away community is narrower than ever. Just a couple of weeks before football practice began, multiple media outlets and several residents reported Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicles in the area. Images of unmarked cars were shared on social media feeds as warnings. Many members of the large migrant population stayed in their homes for hours or even days.
“You could hear the dogs, the chickens,” says Danny Gonzalez, president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. “You could not hear a single soul walking. You could hear no commotion, no traffic. All day Saturday and Sunday. A ghost town in that part of the area. It was pretty bad.”
Whether the perceived threat that weekend was real or imagined — ICE declined to comment on whether any of its officials were present — the concern is clear: President Trump’s promise of raids targeting immigrants who are in the country illegally has put a chill on this proud community, and that has added a strange feel to a normally thrilling time of year. Even the high school football players, not used to giving much mind to politics or current events, have taken it upon themselves to monitor their Facebook accounts to look out for their teammates and families — just in case.
“It’s something important to check in on, 100 percent,” says Frankie Alameda, a senior offensive lineman for Immokalee.
“What if you’re out, you forget your license, you forget your identification?” says senior linebacker Woudlin Pierre, 17, who was born here but has been carrying his Social Security card around for the first time. “Bad timing. Wrong place at the wrong time. Things can happen. My mom is always on me about having my wallet, my license, all that.”
The situation is even more acute for Hispanic players such as Diego Matias, whose family fled Guatemala when he was 8. He says he has his papers in order, but the worry around him is constant.
“A lot of people are very scared right now that [ICE] will take them and leave their family here,” says Matias, 15, whose mother works in the fields.
That is what took place in Mississippi on Aug. 7, when nearly 700 arrests were made in six towns on the first day of school. Images of wailing children were beamed around the world. The first day of school in Immokalee, about an hour’s drive northeast from Naples, came and went as normal. But the question lingers in the humid air: Will it happen here, too?
‘The only way out is hard work’
Even if you haven’t heard of Immokalee (pronounced IM-MOCK-AH-LEE), you almost certainly have enjoyed what it has to offer. More than a third of the nation’s winter tomatoes are grown here, as well as a healthy percentage of its citrus. And if you’re a football fan, you’ve heard of Edgerrin James, the Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist whose mural is up near the bleachers, or J.C. Jackson, who won last season’s Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. (Of the nine “Notable People” listed on the city’s Wikipedia page, seven are football players.)
Anthony has coached seven seasons and made seven trips to the playoffs, and football here is both a cherished pastime and a representation of the work ethic on which the community prides itself.
“The only way out is hard work, dedication, and that’s pretty much it,” says Pierre, the linebacker. “You have to be willing to do most things others won’t do. It’s hard.”
Drive into the center of town and it’s immediately clear how far this is from the beachfront mansions and fancy hotels of mostly white Naples — one of the richest areas in America. Immokalee has Haitian stores, Guatemalan stores, Mexican stores. Anthony, the son of refugees from Haiti, says “90 percent” of his players are from immigrant families.
Lozano’s is one of the town’s most popular restaurants, and a typical lunch crowd includes law enforcement, construction workers and young families. This is one of the places where fans of the high school team go before or after games on Friday nights. But when ICE vehicles are spotted in the Winn-Dixie plaza or elsewhere in town, Gonzalez says, “It’s devastating for all the businesses.”
Concern about authorities cracking down on undocumented workers is not new — President Barack Obama was sometimes referred to as the “deporter-in-chief” by critics of his immigration policies — but the recent Trump decree has brought a new level of anxiety.
“Border Patrol back in the [1980s] and ’90s wasn’t bad,” says Gonzalez, who was once a migrant worker. “But ICE created something different.”
At the restaurant, the discussion can be frank when it comes to the possibility of ICE raids.
“When ICE comes here, we just warn the people,” Gonzalez says of the migrant population. “That’s all we can do. Warn ‘em.”
At school, though, these are practically impossible conversations to have.
“I wouldn’t say I even know [how many players are dealing with immigration fears],” Anthony says. “Even if I ask, they wouldn’t tell me the truth. We do have a relationship, but I represent a school. I represent a government agency of sorts.”
According to federal law, school officials are not allowed to inquire about citizenship status or request proof of citizenship. That has been the case since the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which held that undocumented children are entitled to public education.
So for Anthony, there’s a lot of guesswork as to what may be on a player’s mind. It could be regular teenage turmoil. Or it could be the tough living conditions most of his students face. A high percentage of those enrolled at Immokalee High qualify for free or reduced lunch, which means Anthony is never sure how recently his players have eaten. Migrant workers are, by definition, always on the move. So his players are sometimes cooks and caretakers. Is a player missing tackles because he’s poorly coached? Or because he’s poorly fed?
“If they don’t have food, they end up hitting one of us up,” says Alameda, a senior. “Sometimes parents have bills to pay, and sometimes guys don’t get fed. It’s something we take care of.”
Anthony picks up a few of his players before dawn on some mornings, making sure they arrive on time to school, yet he never meets the parents of most of the players on his team. Just last season he had a player with college potential, and he encouraged him to attend camps where he might get discovered. The player improved significantly.
“Then it got time for scholarships as a senior,” Anthony says. “He looked me, square in the eye, and said, ‘Coach, I’m undocumented.’ ”
All the coach could think of in response was to offer support. Undocumented students can attend college, but they are ineligible for federal student aid.
“What’s the kid doing now?” Anthony says with a hint of exasperation. “I don’t know.”
‘We just never know what’s coming next’
Matias still hears stories about life in Guatemala. “Gangs, out in the country, everyone is scared,” he says. Here there is much less fear — he walks to practice by himself, knowing his paperwork is in order — but it’s always a topic. “A lot,” he says. “When they go to stores or shopping, they have to walk [because] they don’t have cars or licenses. They’re scared.”
He says he’s frustrated not about the system of laws here but the choices ICE is making.
“They should take whoever is doing bad things,” Matias says. “Some [people] they’re taking did nothing wrong. Some are doing something wrong, and they’re not taking them.”
“ICE prioritizes the arrest and removal of unlawfully present aliens who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” an ICE spokesperson wrote in a statement. "… However, all of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and — if found removable by final order — removal from the United States.”
Anthony hasn’t addressed his team directly about the shadow over the town. He knows they’re all talking about it … but should he talk about it? He sits in an empty locker room after an early-morning practice and soul searches. There are placards all around him with motivational phrases used by coaches before him, but Vince Lombardi never had to rally a team in a community where the fertile ground seems to shift underneath your feet.
“I don’t talk to them about it,” he says, almost to himself. “And I may have to start talking to them about it. When that time comes again, I’ll probably have to address it. I just know it’s a scary situation and I can lend some help and comfort to the kids.”
Lately he’s especially worried about one student in particular, who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. The boy hasn’t said much to anyone about his home life lately.
“I think something is wrong,” Anthony says with an obvious look of concern. “I think maybe something happened.”
Amid all this, there’s a season to play. Immokalee lost its starting quarterback to a transfer, and its first preseason game ended in an 18-0 loss. Anthony addressed the team afterward, taking all the blame for himself. There isn’t much time to wallow around here. Winning teams are never predestined but rather forged in setbacks and worry.
“It goes in waves,” Anthony says. “We just never know what’s coming next.”
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