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Community in Crisis ‘We’re watching them watch us…’

Shellfish growers dealing with aftermath of ICE raids

By Sydney Stevens

For the Observer

Published on March 6, 2018 1:01PM

Shellfish farmers and their workers are still trying to adjust to stricter enforcement of immigration laws.


Shellfish farmers and their workers are still trying to adjust to stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

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“Every day we see one or another of the ICE vehicles go back and forth and back again on the highway that borders our property,” she said. “It’s always early in the morning and they are out there stalking. Waiting for our workers to come to work. It’s the only way in to the property and ICE is watching.”

She has an easy laugh. A good sense of humor. She’s been an employer of Hispanics since 1989. “Not very many in all that time,” she says. “Maybe 10. They’re hard workers — never miss a day. Always willing to work overtime and learn new skills. They’re steady workers… great employees!”

What she didn’t say, of course, was that she’s a great employer. “Yes, we pay more than minimum wage,” she said. “But so does everybody. And we try to help with medical problems, if there are any. Even with housing sometimes.”

What she didn’t say, too, was that back in the days when the laws allowed it, she took two employees to Seattle to vouch for them. So, they could get their green cards and work legally. Those two men and their wives are now citizens. And, friends for life.

Work allergy

“When one of our guys was taken last year — right at harvest time! — we had to hire two non-Hispanics to take his place. It was a disaster. One didn’t show up the second day. They couldn’t follow directions, seemed allergic to work. We gave them the easy jobs but they still couldn’t do it. The rest of us filled in the best we could.” She smiles ruefully. Five years past retirement age herself and she was doing the labor that a twenty-five-year-old couldn’t manage.

It was a story that I heard again and again as I talked to employers in the shellfish industry or on the cranberry farms or in the hospitality industry. “Hispanics are our best workers,” they said over and over.

But this year, even more than last, the fear of arrest reverberates through the Hispanic community and clings to them at the workplace. “It doesn’t matter whether they are documented or not,” said one employer. “Everyone has a cousin or a brother, who might be taken. Everyone knows someone who has been deported. Or maybe they are the last bastion for their children because a spouse is waiting up at the Detention Facility in Tacoma.”

“We’ve worked out a signal,” another employer said. “Vomit in Room XXX is what we say on our communication devices. Only there isn’t a Room XXX. We just want people to know that there’s been an ICE sighting in the neighborhood. We want them to cool it a bit if it’s getting close to quitting time… Stay here where it’s safe.”

Waiting to pounce

“ICE would be out here in a nano-second if this wasn’t privately owned property,” another employer said. “They are just lurking out there, waiting to pounce. It’s SO stressful. I can’t imagine the strain on the employees. Even if they are legal, they often have loved ones or friends who aren’t yet documented.”

A few employers, however, say that the worst is over. “All my workers are legal now,” said a shellfish employer. “Either that, or they have been bonded back and are waiting for a court date. ICE isn’t hassling them anymore.”

Asked what he thought about ICE’s big push to arrest undocumented workers beginning just about a year ago, another employer said, “It sure seems like they started with the shellfish workers. Maybe workers out here on the tide flats were easier to approach as they came and went from home. When ICE ran through our crews, they headed over to Raymond and South Bend — at least that’s what it looked like.”

With the heightened awareness throughout the community, there is also an increased search for knowledge. Employers and employees have attended meetings with local advocates and state immigration representatives to learn their rights. They are seeking legal advice about what to do in the event a worker is taken. Some employers have funds set aside in case they need to help with attorney’s fees or with grocery money for a family left behind when the main breadwinner is detained.

Bottom line: Nothing

“It’s not like we haven’t been talking to our legislators,” said one employer. “Just last month, while we were on a family vacation, we stopped in DC to talk to our senator. We’ve all been dealing with the inequities in the visa process for years and years. Our congressmen are frustrated, too. Bottom line, though: nothing. Nothing is happening.”

“At this point,” says another, “there probably won’t be an improvement during this administration. The arrests don’t look to be slowing down and there is absolutely no interest in improving visa access for blue-collar workers.”

“It’s all about ‘skilled’ workers and immigrants with university degrees,” said a local cannery owner. “As for farm and shellfish workers and the housemaids behind the scenes — the politicians calling the shots probably don’t even know where their food comes from — how it gets onto their lovely porcelain dinnerware. And they sure as hell don’t think about who cleans their toilets!”

There seems no doubt among the employers of Hispanics on the Long Beach Peninsula: any relief for the current situation has to be on a local level. “There isn’t going to be any magic bailout from on high. For now, we just need to keep watching out for one another.”


The Workplace

Workplace: A place where people do their jobs.

—Cambridge Dictionary

Aa place (such as a shop or factory) where work is done.

—Merriam Webster

In Pacific County, as in many rural areas, one’s workplace is just as likely to be outdoors as inside a building.

In fact, according to Data USA, as of 2017 there are 5.35 times as many people employed in Agriculture and Aquaculture and Forestry in Pacific County as the expected number for other localities of similar size. That’s not a surprise to those familiar with the workers on the tidy tree farms of north county, on the acres and acres of cranberry bogs on the Peninsula and on the vast oyster and clam beds on the tide flats of Willapa Bay.

Less visible are the workers who fill the leisure and hospitality jobs — an increasing number as the tourism industry burgeons on the Washington coast. According to a March 1, 2018 article in the Chicago Tribune: Immigrants, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 31 percent of hotel workers and 22 percent of food service workers. Comparable statistics for Pacific County are not available, but many employers say that Pacific County percentages would undoubtedly be similar.

Whether employees work according to the tide table or behind the scenes of the lodging and entertainment industries, their hours are often erratic, and the work difficult and unglamorous. Finding workers to fill open positions is difficult and has been a generational lament by employers in these traditional Peninsula industries.

At the same time, heard frequently is the lament that immigrants are taking jobs that ‘should’ be going to non-Hispanics. “It is not the case that immigrants are the only ones applying,” said one Peninsula shellfish farmer in a recent Seattle Times interview. “It is the case that immigrants are the only ones willing to stick it out.”

Both sides of the debate agree that immigration laws need to be streamlined and clearer pathways to legal status for undocumented immigrants need to be established. Until then, the workplaces of Pacific County will be under continuing pressure.


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