Human side of immigration on Orcas Island

  • Tue Jun 17th, 2008 8:27pm
  • News


Special to the Sounder

He came into the home of his employer, not a bit withdrawn as I expected. He and his wife sat close and calm on the sofa. She, being well along and a little uncomfortable in her pregnancy, sat forward and upright. Both appeared relaxed but also alert, enthusiastic and energetic, and not the least intimidated that he had been detained as an “undocumented immigrant.” Both are healthy, youthful people and both had the calloused hands of those who have worked hard all their lives.

He has worked on the island for over five years. She is a naturalized citizen from California, as were many in her family, and has been on the island for several years. For them, it was love at first sight. They were married in the local church, and have been working together ever since. Over the past 18 months he has been working as a day laborer and has shown great competence and energy, and is ready to move into a more skilled position in the company, according to his employer. His employer indicated that he has been paying taxes and social security since coming to work, and wonders if those taxes will be forfeit to the state if the man is deported.

She holds down three jobs, working for Rosario Resort, working as a janitor and translator for a local doctor, and delivering newspapers for The Sounder. They are both members of the Catholic Church and socialize with a tight-knit group in the community. Because of his status and their extensive work hours, they are unable to make themselves more visible in the community. They regret this to some extent, but also see their work and services as their primary contribution to everyone’s welfare.

With everyone somewhat more relaxed, we started off by discussing what had happened to him over the past two weeks. Monday, two weeks ago, he departed by ferry from Orcas to Anacortes. His wife was flying back with their 18 month-old from visiting the part of her family that lives in Mexico, and he was to pick them up at Sea-Tac. When his ferry arrived at the Anacortes terminal he found an Immigration Service roadblock which routed all cars on this domestic ferry run through interrogation. Each driver was questioned regarding his nationality and home address. He responded that he was from Mexico and lived on Orcas Island. When asked if he had documentation he indicated that he had no papers. At this point he was directed to a side parking lot and escorted back to the customs station and told to wait on a bench. He sat there for several hours. Finally, they came for him, placed him in handcuffs and leg shackles and maneuvered him aboard a bus which then traveled to Bellingham. Sitting on the bus, he said he felt very lonely, like a caged animal heading toward some unspecified doom. When asked about his treatment, he said the agents treated him officially, although being provided no information, but there was no abuse. The bus stopped in Bellingham for the night, and agents there allowed him access to a telephone. He was able to call some of his friends on Orcas Island, who in turn were finally able to track down his pregnant wife and child, still at the airport and frantic that something had happened to him on the way down to Sea-Tac

Although not knowing where he was at this point, she did learn that there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) see detention facility in Tacoma, but was unable to find an address and spent the night in taxis trying to locate this compound. The following day she returned to the island. She learned that their car had been impounded, and was immediately faced with a $425 one-day charge for towing and impoundment.

After spending the night in Bellingham, he continued his trip up to Blaine, apparently the central CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) processing point for the Canadian border with Washington State. Here he was handed a stack of forms to sign. The forms were in Spanish, but no one was there to offer help or counsel in filing them out. He signed most, but when he came to one where he was to admit that he was an illegal alien and would waive due process, he felt this was not right, and refused to sign the paper. (We understand that another family did sign this paper and were remanded to a holding facility for those subject to immediate deportation.) After the paperwork was processed, he was put back on the bus in shackles and carried to the Tacoma detention facility. In the meantime, his wife had learned that he was now in Tacoma and the location of the facility and drove down there to help him.

The following day she was able to have a short visit with her husband. They were told that he was going to be brought before a judge and had the right to a lawyer. Not knowing any lawyers, much less a specialist in immigration, she walked up and down the line of detainees and their families and slowly created a list of immigration lawyers. There were no social services representatives of any immigrant organizations at the facility to assist her. She then retuned to the island.

With the list from the immigration line, she began calling lawyers. She found that their one-time charge for assisting the defendant before the immigration judge was between $1,500 and $6,000. The only difference she could ascertain was that those who charged the higher fees seemed more assured that they could get the bail reduced from the standard $15,000 for every detainee. Practical considerations weighed in and she selected an attorney at $1,500. She drove back down to Tacoma, met with her husband and the lawyer, and was asked to prepare documentation to buttress their case. She was to provide papers regarding her legal status so she would not also be detained, plus her marriage certificate, and letters from islanders testifying to his soundness and good reputation on the island. She was told to bring $15,000 in cash back with her in the case the judge did not reduce the bail. ICE regulations apparently do not have a provision for bail bonds as opposed to direct bail. The lawyer was then able to set a court date. She returned to Orcas and frantically worked through her friends and the community to raise the money. His employer, familiar with previous episodes with immigration authorities in California, made arrangements for her to obtain what funds were beyond the means of her friends.

Several days later, and the day before the arraignment, she returned to the facility. She said that she carried $16,500 in cash in her purse for two days. Her husband went before the Judge who reduced the bail to $10,000. He was advised that he will be called before the Judge sometime in the next year for disposition of his case. No one was able to provide counsel regarding what would likely happen to him at court, or how many times he might have to return to court. All future court appearances plus any preparation time with the lawyers were subject to additional legal fees. The entire process for this family required ten days away from home and their respective jobs, and a loss of one-third of a month’s income – quite a financial hit in itself.

At this point, the employer’s wife brought several questions to bear. She wanted to know what has been the impact of Homeland Security’s new aggressiveness through their ICE and CPB divisions, on the immigrant community. The couple responded that it was primarily fear. Many of those undocumented are fearful of leaving their homes. This included reluctance to go to their jobsites, attend the Church, or seek needed medical care. Their willingness to take the ferry system has diminished to almost zero. Several who have off-island medical needs, at great personal risk, have foregone the care and chosen to remain home. Apparently a rumor went around the community that the ICE had stationed agents at the Island Market. Many were now fearful of going shopping for groceries. It also came out that the successful “English as a Second Language” program at the Public Library saw a drop to one-third of the normal attendance after the ferry inspections.

The second question was “what would you want to say to the community about yourselves and your experience?” The response was humbling, and perhaps a lesson for all of us.

The couple had no recriminations about the government, their problems or ours, or the treatment they have received here. They wanted us to understand that it is not a question about their being deported to Mexico, finding another job there, and creating a new life. There were no jobs in Mexico, especially for those who had been gone so long. She was a US citizen but would move back with him in the event of his deportation. It had been six years since he had seen his mother and father in Mexico, although he calls them every weekend. Given his family’s straits in Mexico, they do not have the resources to take him in. The inflation rates in Mexico are so high, and pay so low, that even if they were able to find a job, they could not make as much in a day in Mexico as they could in an hour on the island. And then, what they did make would not be sufficient for them to purchase food, clothing and shelter.

At this point, he rose from the sofa and said with some emotion, “Please make the community understand, that we are not here for free services and a hand out. We want to take nothing from the community. All we want is a quiet and safe place to raise our children, and to work for you.”

Steve Garrison is an advocate for the Hispanic community. He lives in Olga.