PACIFIC COUNTY — Ten-year-old “Juan” was in class when the ICE agents came for his father.
He’d left for school on Thursday, March 2, believing his hard-working, fun-loving dad would be there to play with him and his little brother and baby sister when he got home. But by then, “Rodrigo,” 40, was on his way to a detention facility in The Dalles, Oregon; one state, and a world away from the quiet life of work, fatherhood and Sunday afternoon barbecues he’d built on the Peninsula.
With a new president who dreams of building giant walls and giving “Bad Hombres” the boot, the long-simmering national debate about immigration is coming to a boil, with consequences for local undocumented immigrants, and their families, schools and employers. These include staffing and school attendance problems, reduced workplace productivity, hefty financial and emotional burdens for families of detainees, and declining participation in programs intended to help kids succeed in school.
Immigrants are “… very scared. They’re nervous. There is a definite change,” said Dr. Kim Patten, a Washington State University Extension horticulturist and Ocean Beach School District board member. “These things happen, but I think it’s much more visible now. It’s certainly more aggressive, and it’s more widespread.”
In a neighborhood near you
In late 2016, Pacific County citizens began contacting the Chinook Observer to report apparent changes in the frequency, and nature of “raids” conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Data about ICE activities could take weeks or months to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests, but workers in schools, and the agricultural, shellfish and hospitality industries have a wealth of anecdotes. Most agree that fear of deportation has dramatically risen among Pacific County’s immigrants, and say stories like Rodrigo’s are becoming more common.
“It’s to the point where we’ve had some families that are keeping their children out of school a fair bit. They are afraid ICE agents may come to their home or their work while the kids are at school, leaving them stranded,” said Amy Huntley, a 24-year OBSD employee.
Patten’s contacts in education and agriculture have observed that in the past, ICE agents usually showed up at larger seafood processors and took whomever didn’t have their documentation in order. Lately, they seem to be homing in on smaller employers or homes, and focusing on specific people, Patten said.
‘Under a microscope’
Huntley, an administrator, oversees OBSD’s Migrant Education Program.
Many agricultural workers have to move frequently, and that can be hard on their kids. Migrant programs try to help them stay in school and on-track by providing things like physicals, immunizations and credit recovery. But families are dropping out of the program, and Huntley and her colleagues are worried. Migrant kids are missing out on helpful services, and falling participation could lead to funding cuts that would affect other students, too.
“They’re afraid that by accepting help from the migrant program, it puts them in a group that might be labeled and targeted,” Huntley explained.
Schools across Washington have been sharing similar concerns with state education authorities over the last few months. In response, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal recently sent a out letter, offering assurances that Washington schools do not collect information about immigration status.
“I couldn’t tell you — even if I was allowed to tell you — which students and which parents are legal, or on a visa, or undocumented, or any of that,” Huntley said.
Those measures have been only partly successful. The district was not able to immediately provide enrollment data, but Huntley said that even families who are in the country legally have pulled away from school programs.
“They are afraid that being on that list puts them under a microscope,” Huntley said.
Additionally, school staff who have direct contact with immigrant families are hearing that locals who have lived and worked legally in the U.S. for years are facing new obstacles, including unexpected announcements that now, they must return to Mexico to renew their visas, instead of going to the regional visa-processing authority.
“Suddenly, the process they’re partly done with has been yanked out from underneath them, and they’re dealing with a completely different system,” Huntley said.
No ‘Bad Hombre’
After the ICE agents took Rodrigo, people in his rural bayside neighborhood were stunned.
“The question for me was, why did they pick him up? What was his crime?” said a middle-aged female neighbor, who has known the family for several years. “The president said they’re going to go after the bad people. I knew he wasn’t one of them.”
As far as any of the neighbors know, Rodrigo is an honest man in every regard but one: he has lived and worked in California and Washington without a visa since he came from Mexico about 20 years ago. While not exhaustive, a search for court records only turned up two prior encounters with the justice system: traffic tickets, issued three years apart.
“He’s the kind of guy that you couldn’t help but like,” the woman said — a devoted dad, drummer in a band, and frequent host of volleyball games.
“On Sunday afternoons and Saturday afternoons, all kinds of people would come in and they’d be playing until it got dark,” she said.
An older man who has known the family for about seven years said Rodrigo and his wife, “Marta,” who is still nursing a six-month old baby girl, are friendly shellfish harvesters who work hard in every kind of weather.
“We were very saddened to see that interrupted by [Rodrigo’s] removal. When my favorite neighbor on the block gets hauled off, that’s kind of a sad thing.”
When they heard the news, neighbors went to see Marta and were shocked by the neat, pretty woman’s haggard appearance.
“I didn’t recognize her,” the female neighbor said. “… She looked 20 years older.”
The neighbors pledged their support, but quickly found there was little they could do to alleviate the fear that had taken hold in the home. A couple of nights after the ICE visit, the female neighbor saw Juan, a bright boy, with whom she had become close, and offered to cook him supper.
“He said ‘No, if they came and got my mother when I wasn’t there, I would feel so bad,’” she recalled on March 9. “I guess he came home in tears yesterday because two boys teased him about his father being picked up.”
The Elephante in the room
For better or for worse, many of Pacific County’s seafood operations, cranberry farms and tourist establishments rely on low-wage immigrant laborers, many of whom are “illegal,” so many industry leaders fear repercussions too much to talk openly.
“It’s such a touchy subject,” said one port employee who declined to comment on the record, citing fears that any comments about ICE raids in the port could be taken as evidence that port officials were harboring undocumented workers.
“Oyster companies — every one of them have reported since the new [presidential] administration that they have had people taken,” Patten said. Some company owners are truly concerned about their workers, he added, especially at smaller operations where long-time employees feel “like family.”
They’re also distressed about losing workers with special knowledge and skills, Patten said, and some have told him that replacement temp agency laborers often aren’t up to even lower-level jobs.
“They say at the end of the day, they have shucked about two gallons of oysters — that’s about an hour of work [for an experienced worker],” Patten said.
If ICE raids do significantly disrupt the workforce, Patten said, “The tendrils of that spread wide and deep. If you want to have a rural economy, you need to have workers.”
The man on the other side of the glass
Rodrigo is now in the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, another facility for ICE detainees. He is able to communicate with his family every day now and, according to neighbors, Marta has hired an immigration attorney, at a cost of about $4,000.
Marta won’t take money from her neighbors, so they try to help in other ways. The female neighbor spent several hours researching legal routes to immigration for Mexican nationals. She came away feeling deeply discouraged by the limited opportunities for men like Rodrigo.
“If you’re in Mexico and you’re poor, you can’t get into this country legally,” she said.
Rodrigo has a court date in Tacoma at the end of the month. She has offered to drive Marta to court, or to take her and the kids to see Rodrigo, but on March 20, the attorney advised them to think twice.
ICE usually doesn’t detain both parents, because then the children end up in the detention system, he said, but he still thought it too risky for Marta to enter a courthouse filled with ICE agents.
He said it would be safe for her to take the kids to the detention center, but cautioned that it could make things worse for the kids to see their father in a prison-like setting.
“There’s that glass window and telephones. They can’t touch, they can’t hug,” the neighbor explained. “I’ve told her I’d be happy to take her. [Juan] understands that he couldn’t get near his dad.”
How we reported this story:
People who know “Rodrigo” wanted to share his story, but feared that doing so could endanger his family or invite further federal enforcement.
A Chinook Observer reporter used public records and interviews with multiple sources to independently verify details about Rodrigo and everyone who spoke about him, but withheld real names and/or other identifying information out of respect for the family’s security.