And even as many immigrant families scramble to pay lawyers' fees and make bail for detained loved ones, the price of salal has tanked: The plant is worth half what it was a year ago. The decline is primarily due to the current recession, but according to Jim Freed, a non-timber forest product specialist with Washington State University, the heyday of the industry in the Northwest was already past; it hit its peak here in the early '90s. Since then, much of the land suitable for growing salal has been covered with houses. That's not all: Because Washington's timber industry has become increasingly dependent on small-diameter wood, many timber companies have shortened their harvest cycles from 90 years to around 50. As a result, salal has less time to get established in the understory. "In the old days," says Freed, "you'd pick an area once every five years. Now they're having to go back and pick the same areas over and over."
Several nonprofits have tried to encourage landowners and harvesters to work together to manage the land. The brush industry is normally "very tenuous for harvesters," says Freed, because they have "no easy access to land, and are at the mercy of regulators, law enforcement and wholesalers." In the late '90s, an Ilwaco-based nonprofit called Rainkist tried to market "green-certified" forest products in an attempt to prevent over-harvesting and put more money into the pockets of harvesters.
Invariably, these efforts fail because immigrant workers cannot gather in large groups or travel unnecessarily, much less participate in the broader economy, for fear of arrest and deportation. "If you want to do something about the environment," says Patricia Vasquez, who worked with brush pickers for the now-defunct immigrant advocacy nonprofit The Jefferson Center, "you need to get the workers involved, and you can't if they're always under pressure from Immigration."
At 8:30 on a rainy spring evening in Forks, Virgilio, a 22-year-old indigenous Guatemalan brush picker with an easy and enthusiastic smile, has just gotten home to the single-wide trailer he and his wife share with several other family members. In nearly eight hours of picking salal, he's earned $50. Speaking through an interpreter, Virgilio says that he came to Forks to join his family and pick brush nearly five years ago, and that neither the economic nor the immigration situation have ever been this bad. "People never know when they're going to get taken," he says. He estimates that half of the thousand or so Hispanics who lived in Forks before the raids started have since left town.
The number of students enrolled in the Quillayute Valley School District's bilingual education program is down 14 percent from last year. So many pickers have left Forks that last May, 70-year-old George "Hop" Dhooghe, the owner of a wholesale brush company called Olympic Evergreens, had trouble meeting his end-of-season orders. Dhooghe has worked in the brush industry all his life, mostly as a harvester. But when asked about the prospect of a greens industry without immigrant labor, he is dismissive: "It would be hard to get anybody to do the work," he says, "and if (salal) got too expensive, florists would move to other greens." This year, Dhooghe opened a brush-buying shed in Oregon, and says that "a lot of the people who used to pick for me here now pick down there."
Although there haven't been any checkpoints recently, Homeland Security continues to beef up security along the Canadian border. It's also moving ahead with construction of an enlarged Border Patrol station and temporary detention center in Port Angeles. In February, the county sheriff in Forks accepted a Homeland Security grant that requires deputies to more closely coordinate local law enforcement with the Border Patrol. The sheriff in neighboring Jefferson County refused the grant money, calling the collaboration requirement "unacceptable."
Meanwhile, local immigrants and their allies are continuing to organize anti-Border Patrol rallies and meetings. "Hopefully, out of the (public reaction to the) checkpoints, there will be integration of ways to monitor immigration enforcement," says Patricia Vasquez. Vasquez and other advocates hope that under the Obama administration, the Border Patrol will cease conducting raids, like those at the Quilcene Ranger Station, that specifically target illegal immigrants. "People have realized," says Jim Freed, "that we're spending a lot of money chasing down people who are otherwise minding their own business."
Despite the Border Patrol raids, poor brush prices and lack of good quality salal, Virgilio says he hopes to live in Forks forever. He's applied for amnesty because of gang wars back in Guatemala, and he and his wife have a baby son who is a U.S. citizen. Even though the work is hard, he says, it normally pays well. He'll just wait to see what happens next.
The author writes from Lilliwaup, Washington, where her family owns a tree farm.
This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.