Wash. town rides ups, downs of 'broken' immigration system

Mar 20, 2013

There's one word that politicians almost always use when they talk about the U.S. immigration system: “broken.” But what does that really mean?

Residents of the small town of Brewster, Wash., know. For decades, immigrants have come from Mexico, often illegally, to work the surrounding apple and cherry orchards.

Most people in Brewster's immigrant community either have heard about or remember December 1997. That was when “la migra” came. A Border Patrol plane flew overhead, vans and buses pulled up near a fruit packing facility outside of town. Lucia Dalabera remembers.

“The saddest part was the families,” she said with the help of a translator.

Brewster sits along the Columbia River in north central Washington state.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

Mothers were sent back to Mexico while their husband and children stayed in this small town in north-central Washington along the Columbia River.

Then came the second raid in March 1998. It was exactly three months later to the day, leading people to wonder for years when the next one would be.

“I lived in fear, always wondering when immigration would come find me,” said Dalabera.

It took until the fall of 2009 for the next big raid to come. And it was far bigger. But this one didn't come with planes or vans; by most accounts, it came in the form of paperwork.

“We were given a letter that said there's no more work,” said Dalabera. Yes, it was in a different form this time, but the result was the same. Parents out of work – what do you? It was the same … hit.”

’I would say it had no effect’

amily-owned Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Wash., owns more than 5,000 acres of cherry and apple orchards in Washington. It's one of the biggest growers in the country.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

Gebbers Farms Is Brewster’s biggest employer and one of the largest apple growers in the nation. It was the target of the Obama administration’s new brand of immigration raid called an “audit.” By 2010, Gebbers had been forced to switch to a guest-worker program. Five hundred undocumented workers, maybe more, were fired. It was a huge hit for a town of 2,300 people.

Three years later, the initial panic has subsided. It's hard to say what exactly happened to all the workers who were fired. But one thing is clear: Many people stayed and found work elsewhere using a different name.

High school baseball coach Jerrod Riggan says in the end, not much has changed in Brewster.

“I would say it had no effect,” he said. “I would say more workers came in and filled the roles that were lost. Gebbers Farms is a pretty big employer, and when they have a need, they’ve got to fill it.”

'People keep waiting for immigration to come again’

But members of the Hispanic community say a lot has changed for them. Minerva Alvarado owns a clothing shop on Main Street in Brewster. She sells clothes for baptisms, communion, birthdays, weddings. Ever since the audit, Alvarado says fewer people are throwing big parties.

“People are trying to save. There's less job security. People keep waiting for immigration to come again,” she said.  

Esteban Camacho owns Mi Pueblo Market. He's learned how to cook Jamaican food to serve the new wave of guest workers in the area.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

Next door, Esteban Camacho runs a grocery store and deli. He serves homemade Mexican bread and tacos. But he’s also learned how to make coconut rice and jerk chicken for hundreds of Jamaican workers who now work the orchards on seasonal guest worker visas.

Camacho says they’re bussed into town only a few times a week. And they send almost all of their money home.

“Business is getting a little better but never going to be the same as before. I'm pretty sure about that,” Camacho said.

‘It did nothing! That’s the thing’

Gebbers Farms itself has remained silent on the audit. The company did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.

rewster Police Chief Ron Oules says the federal immigration audit of Gebbers Farms that led to at least 500 workers being fired hasn't stopped the flow of undocumented immigrants.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

 But according to the Washington Farm Labor Association, Gebbers is one of 35 growers now using the guest worker program. The industry complains it's an expensive system that requires a company to coordinate with six different government agencies. And it still doesn't provide enough workers. The association estimates as many as 70 percent of agricultural workers in Washington are not “work authorized.”

Ron Oules is the police chief in Brewster. Trophies from his deer hunting trips stare out over his office. Oules says there has been a noticeable decline in calls to the police since the audit, which he attributes to the strict criteria for guest worker visa holders. But in the end, he says, the federal government didn’t stop the flow of undocumented workers to Brewster.

“It did nothing! That's the thing,” he said. “It hit the media and it looks like this great big thing, but the reality – the end result truly is, other than putting a financial burden on a local business and disrupting the lives of the residents around here, did it truly make a change? I don't believe so, no.”

Oules points to one indication of that: school enrollment didn't go down, as predicted. In fact, it went up.

Taking a look at Brewster

You get the idea of the sheer magnitude of the agricultural industry here on a hill overlooking Gebbers' vast orchards.

Helen Davis of the Support Center in Omak works closely with the workers who pick fruit in the orchards outside of Brewster, Wash.
Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

“It's phenomenal, really, when you think about it — that it's by human hands that these apples get picked,” said Helen Davis, who works for a domestic violence center in Omak. Her own family is originally from Mexico and she works closely with immigrants in Brewster.

Davis says some of the fired Gebbers workers who did leave have started to come back. Meanwhile, she’s been watching the political tides turn this year in favor of some sort of immigration reform. But Davis has heard that before.

“I've always said, if we could have politicians out here, standing here watching the people work…” she said. “And I have thought about this so often — to invite them to come up here. And just watching, just listening.”

Davis points off in the distance where there's a bend in the Columbia River. Around that bend are even more orchards, all the way north to the border.