US undocumented Latinos living in fear

By The Guardian Updated at 2014-04-10 05:58:53 +0000


The rainforests around Forks, a small town in Washington state, have long attracted hunters and fishermen, but beginning in 2008, this lush, remote landscape acquired a new breed of pursuer and prey.

That year, Border Patrol agents started targeting undocumented Latinos who lived in the town and worked in the woods, collecting mushrooms and salal, a shrub used by florists.

The agents set up roadblocks, tailed vehicles and trekked through the forests, sometimes disguising themselves as hunters, in a tense – and, eventually, lethal – game of cat-and-mouse.

Not all the Latinos living in Forks at the time were undocumented, but dread still gripped much of the community, which represented about a third of Forks' population of 3,500. To avoid “la migra”, they kept watch for patrols, shopped at night and minimised contact with schools, police or anything official.

On May 14 2011, a Forest Service officer stopped Benjamin Roldan Salinas and his partner, Crisanta Ramos, in their truck after a day collecting salal. They showed their permit. But minutes later, to their horror, a Border Patrol vehicle arrived. Ostensibly the agents had come to help translate, but according to activists, it was a familiar case of the Border Patrol using local enforcement agencies as extra sets of eyes and ears.

The couple bolted into the woods. One agent ran down Ramos and handcuffed her. Salinas vanished into the Sol Duc river. Every day for three weeks, neighbours and friends searched for him. On June 5, they found his body, snagged on an object in the river.

“He died in the water. My husband died in the water,” said Ramos last week, cradling the youngest of her three children and sobbing as she recalled the day. “He ran because he knew what would happen.”

If he’d been caught, Roldan Salinas would have been detained with hundreds of other undocumented Latinos, before being sent to Mexico to become one of the estimated 2m people deported under Barack Obama.

That 2m milestone, which activist groups say was hit in recent weeks, is a figure that far outstrips what was done under previous administrations, and it has stoked anger in the Latino community and earned Obama the sobriquet “deporter-in-chief”. Last year alone, 369,000 undocumented migrants were deported, a ninefold increase from 20 years ago.

The president, who's been hurt by criticism he's received on the issue, has ordered deportation to be “more humanely” enforced. But without executive action or legislative immigration reform, mass banishments will continue.

This article is the first in a three-part series showing how the journey from south to north, a migration which changed the face of the US, is being reversed. A trajectory, which once seemed as inexorable as gravity, is now moving in the opposite direction, from north to south. The backward trek begins in the rainy mists of Washington state, passes through detention centres and deportation transports, and ends in the baked concrete of Tijuana.

The flow does not discriminate between people who crossed the border only recently and those who came over decades ago, raised families here and consider themselves American.

Forks, a depressed logging town near the tip of the Olympic peninsula, is an unlikely magnet for Hispanics. A four-hour car and ferry ride from Seattle, bounded on the west by the Pacific, it tends to be cold and wet. Logging's decline made property cheap, however, and in the 1990s, Mexicans and Guatemalans began moving here to work in the woods. A skilled salal picker can earn about $90 daily.

“They're good workers. Do the work white people aren't willing to do anymore,” said Hop Dhooghe, 75, who sells salal and other forest products. “If you didn't have Latinos here your grocery store wouldn't have an apple in it.” He has joined an organization called the Forks Human Rights Group to oppose deportations.

Estanislao Matias, a 24-year-old from Guatemala, paid smugglers $3,500 that he’d borrowed – an enormous sum for him – to join siblings here in 2009. “In our imagination we think of the marvels awaiting us,” he said. “That's why we risk everything to come. Then I saw how hard it was, that I'd be working in rain and hail.”

Worse, he encountered a sense of siege. “It was like a horror movie. People peeking out of windows, afraid to go out.”

Matias was 3,000 miles from Guatemala and 1,300 miles from the Mexican border, his desert crossing already a memory, but he was 60 miles from a border crossing from Canada, putting him within the Border Patrol's 100-mile jurisdiction into the US interior – and an unprecedented crackdown.

Back in 1994, the nationwide force had 4,000 agents. To deter the influx from Mexico it increased to 8,500 by 2001. After 9/11 it was folded into US Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security. The number of agents in green, who have distinct uniforms and roles from other CBP colleagues, expanded to 23,000, one of the biggest federal forces.

A Senate bill last year proposed expanding it further, to 40,000.

With this surge, huge resources were directed to the sleepy northern border, and the Border Patrol’s green uniformed agents were sent into rural communities across Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota and New York, where they had seldom been seen before. A guard post with four agents in Port Angeles, which covers Washington state’s Olympic peninsula, morphed into a new, 19,000 sq ft facility with more than 40 agents.

Apart from the cost, there was just one problem with the addition of all these new agents: they had, according to one of them, “nothing to do.”

"During our work shifts, other agents and I always talked about how coming to work was like the black hole, swallowing us up slowly with no purpose, no mission," Christian Sanchez, a Border Patrol officer who was stationed at Port Angeles from 2009 to 2012, told a forum in Washington, DC.

Agents spent so much time driving around the peninsula that they nicknamed it the “Baja 500”, after the car race, he said.

Bored and frustrated, and under pressure to meet job performance metrics measured in numbers of arrests, they targeted undocumented Latinos in Forks, stopping them on the highway, following them home, following them in forests, grocery stores, the town hall.

“There were Border Patrol vehicles everywhere, following each other around like little herds,” said the mayor, Bryon Monohon. “They had no clear idea what they were supposed to do and were just pulling people off the street. It was creepy.”

A study by the Forks Human Rights Group – which is comprised of local Latinos, activists and social service providers – and students at the Ronald Peterson Law Clinic at Seattle University School of Law documented intimidation and harassment in hundreds of encounters.

“These include maintaining a threatening presence in the community, conspicuously following and watching people, bullying, damaging personal property, driving aggressively, harassing, and retaliating against advocates and family members,” the report said.

Almost every Latino left in Forks has a story. “When you see them coming up behind you it's like the devil is following you,” said Matias, the Guatemalan. One pre-dawn morning, he recalled, two Border Patrol vehicles suddenly appeared and sandwiched him and others as they drove to work. He fled on foot. “It was so dark and icy I couldn't see anything, I was running into trees. I got away but afterwards I was trembling and crying.”

Roldan Salinas, who drowned, left Ramos, now 30, to bring up three young children alone. “I feel so alone. Benjamin was a good man and a good father.”

The children are US citizens, and after the tragedy Ramos was granted provisional permission to stay. But she feels haunted. Six days a week she is out working from 7am to 7pm, without her partner to help carry backbreaking loads. “I tell the children to study hard so they won't suffer like I have suffered.”

The outcry over Roldan Salinas's death – it made news in Mexico - appeared to chasten the Border Patrol. Intimidation and arrests have dwindled over the past year, said activists. The agency settled a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project by agreeing, among other things, to enhance training in fourth amendment protections and to stop doubling up as translators for Forest Service stops.

It was a victory, said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU's Seattle office, but a local one, and Border Patrol overreach stretched around the US. “Most Americans are shocked when they learn that Border Patrol assertion of authority extends to 100 miles from the border.”

Customs and Border Protection’s main office in Washington DC did not respond to requests for comment.

Forks is not celebrating. “The mood remains edgy,” said Lesley Hoare, an activist with the Forks Human Rights Group. About half of the Latino community has fled south, beyond the Border Patrol’s reach, draining money and vibrancy from agriculture, trailer parks, schools and stores.

“It's hurt my business. Most of my workers are gone,” lamented Dhooghe, who now fills just 100 boxes of salal daily, down from 500.

Apart from Ramos, a widow, the biggest losers are the dozens of families who had members – typically male, adult breadwinners – deported, often with no notification to family, said Monohon, the mayor, who also teaches at the local high school. “We had kids in school saying: ‘Daddy didn't come home last night.’”

Sofia Garcia Morelos, 33, is among those left to raise a child alone. The Border Patrol nabbed her partner while they picked mushrooms in 2011. “I cried and cried when they took him.” The blow was emotional and financial. His income gone, she parsed her own meagre takings to help him in a detention centre in Tacoma, south of Seattle, and then in Tijuana, Mexico, where he ended up marooned. They have since quarelled over the phone. Neither she nor their son have documents to visit him. They don't expect to see him again. “He can't get back.”