The real Washington vampire story

 

Vampires are taking the West by storm, descending on rural communities like Forks, Wash. Is this a reference to Twilight, the now cult-classic book and movie? No, in this case, the malevolent outsiders are agents of ICE, which stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Border Patrol.

There is a strong parallel here to the vampires in Twilight: Federal immigration officials are sucking the life out of entire communities and preying on the most vulnerable among us. The parallels between Stephenie Meyer's fairytale and the real world don't end with the similarities between federal immigration agents and the "bad" vampires in Twilight. The setting is still Forks, Wash., a small, quiet town of 3,000 people near the picturesque Hoh rainforest. As readers learned in Twilight, the Olympic Peninsula is filled with majestic forests and plentiful rain. In real life, these forests supply coveted forest products to people around the world, thanks to the labor of hundreds of people who ask little of us.

Some work at "block cutting," which entails cutting huge cedar stumps into blocks that are hoisted up by helicopter from the middle of the forests, and then carted by semi-trucks to mills to be cut into shakes and shingles.

Another forest product is the ornamental leaves of salal. Harvesters pluck the spear-like leaves from salal plants deep in the forest and sell their bundles to packing sheds that ship across the globe.

The two industries constitute a major part of what's left of Forks' economy, one that's suffered greatly since the timber wars of the 1990s. Not surprisingly, these forest workers are extremely poor, though they perform the most dangerous and labor-intensive jobs in the industry. Block-cutters use chainsaws with the skill of a chef filleting a fish, and many have the scars to show for their years of labor. Salal harvesters walk miles into areas without roads in order to harvest and carry back salal branches. Both groups work long hours maneuvering slippery terrain peppered with large rocks and fallen trees. Dangerous slips and falls are routine. Twisted ankles, broken legs and sprained backs are disturbingly common.

So, you might ask, what do Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol have to do with block cutting and salal harvesting? Here's a hint: The job titles are bloqueros and saladeros. And the workers are mainly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. Because many are undocumented, the biggest danger they face is neither their risky job nor their abject poverty. The saws, the slippery terrain and the economic exploitation don't equal the fear and humiliation generated by an encounter with a customs or Border Patrol agent.

Immigration officials have descended on Forks like tourists scrambling to see the moss-draped trees described in Twilight. They are stopping any and all Latino-looking people on their way to the store or while dropping kids off at school. They wait outside the courthouse to target immigrants who are there to simply pay a parking ticket.

Stories abound -- of the trauma children endure in encounters with customs agents; terrifying details about early-morning house raids; even reports of immigration officials sending dogs after workers who chose to run into the woods. When caught, these hard-working immigrants who supply weatherproof shingles for our houses and floral arrangements for our weddings are sent to the Tacoma, Wash., detention facility, which was documented by Seattle University in 2008 as a site of human rights violations.

Much like the fictional world of Twilight, the outsiders -- federal immigration officials -- show no sympathy for the workers and their families. Their aim is to locate and dispose of the vulnerable. Hunting is their job. The end result of their pursuit is the suffering of their targets, who suddenly disappear from a community -- perhaps even a family -- that had been home.

In an ironic social twist only possible in today's world, Meyer's simple story about vampires, with its many parallels to the real-life town, has put Forks on the national map. So we think this is the time for a real-life response to the inhumane immigration crackdown -- a response on the scale of the national infatuation with vampires.

We urge Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire to take the lead on progressive immigration reform: It's time for the governor to tell customs officials and the Border Patrol to stop the raids, roadblocks and detentions in Forks and elsewhere in Washington. Doing this would put Washington in the national spotlight for something of which its people can be proud.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Joe Campe is a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington in Seattle; Juan Jose Bocanegra is a staff organizer for Washington state's Jobs with Justice, a national campaign for workers' rights.

illegal immigrants in the woods
Hal Herring
Hal Herring
May 20, 2009 01:41 PM
Your essay is appreciated. I worked in the woods for many years as a treeplanter, sawyer, fireliner, etc, from north Florida to Curlew, Washington, and most Western states between. The last couple of seasons, my work partner and I were the only two US-born members of the crew - at one treeplanting job, we were told that there was a policy against hiring locals, because "Americans tend to complain too much." They hired us anyway, when we pointed out that the policy was almost certainly illegal. The pay was very good.
 
Our fellow crew members were legal and illegal, most of them top hands, fine people. I made alot of friends among them, and, since I speak fair Spanish, helped them with some paperwork mysteries, questions to the bosses, etc. In my many trips to Mexico, I have been treated with warmth and hospitality - it is one of my favorite places. I wish Mexico and its people nothing but the best, and hope someday that there will be no need for Mexican working men and women to leave their country to find a job that pays a living wage, or to work in a country where so many of the citizens - many of them too lazy and stupid to compete with them - hold them in such low regard.

The raids and persecution of the forest and woods workers in Forks are a tragedy. The suffering you describe is terrible, and I know it is real.

But if you are suggesting here that we simply stop enforcing immigration laws, that is ridiculous. There are an estimated 12-20 million undocumented workers in the US now. No serious nation would or could accept that without trying to do something about it. There are too many ramifications and consequences to having this many undocumented workers here for it to be just ignored.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that these strong men and women working around Forks are not in Mexico or Guatemala, fighting tooth and nail to create a nation where their children will not have to endure the indignities you describe so well.








 
Response to Hal
MPJ
MPJ
May 20, 2009 04:02 PM
Or perhaps the tragedy is that individuals are punished, while the companies that knowingly hire illegal workers face few if any ramifications for their actions. In America it is business as usual. We are so eager to have all the trappings of modern American life - things like shingles and fancy bouquets, for example - that we conveniently ignore _how_ businesses make it possible for us to obtain these items, and then we conveniently express our righteous indignation at 'illegals' and demand that they be caught and sent anywhere but here.

In our best moments we are either absurd hypocrites or great lovers of irony - perhaps we are both: we treat corporations with an incredible dose of humanity and charity by giving them massive welfare-like benefits because we desperately need for business to make profit; then of course we treat individuals with a complete disregard for their basic humanity by 'vampirically' hunting them down, violating their human rights in secret detention centers, separating them from their families, and sending them off to foreign countries like Guatemala, which, as a side-note, is just recently coming out of an extremely brutal, tyrannical, genocidal period of history that was influenced directly by American foreign policy.

Perhaps comprehensive immigration reform might tackle some of these inconsistencies - you know, those pesky little inconsistencies like basic human rights for all. Or we could continue to have our opinions conveniently handed to us primarily by conservative politicians who pander to our fear of 'aliens' - you know, the 'aliens' who build our houses, grow and pick our food, and work far harder for far less than those CEO's who politely ask for handouts worth billions and billions of dollars.
reply
Hal
Hal
May 21, 2009 11:15 AM
MPJ,

I agree with what you are saying here. I posted a long reply last night, but the page timed out or something and it never appeared.

The gist was this: I agree with you, but I'm not sure what that gets us. Yes, the system is broken. But no, I don't think that means we can abandon all attempts at enforcing the present law while we work to fix it.

But here's what I really think. The enforcement actions described in this essay look like a classic case of a non-functioning nation to me. Low paid men and women in uniforms chasing lower paid working people through the forests and the streets. Meanwhile, the wealthy grow wealthier by hiring, for less than minimum wage the same working folks who manage to escape the"raids." The benefits are huge, if you are post-national, which the wealthy are. Unions are destroyed. Wages are capped, always declining. Goods are kept affordable (the "bread"
in the phrase "bread and circuses").

I honestly believe there will be no attempt to address immigration, other than these token and cruel "raids." What there will be is a great leveling effect, where the millions of people from less functional nations circulate here in the US, suppressing wages, never becoming truly legal, always kept marginalized. Millions of working people who cannot vote...sounds like a formula for easy domination, a kind of dictatorship by the aristocracy- ah hah, and isn't that the norm for the planet? The US for all its faults, was indeed unique in its long experiment in egalitarianism and opportunity for all. Not perfect by any means, but unique in its stated aspirations, many of them fulfilled to a high degree.

What we may witness now, as the population climbs to 400 million, then higher, is the great leveling. The US will offer fewer opportunities to go around, civil liberties will fall to more normal levels (say Guatemala's), corruption perhaps, will rise to more normal levels. The level of function that we once knew will be as lost as the salmon runs of the Columbia. Environmental standards will fall to more Mexican levels, because, after all, who will teach these millions of immigrants the reasons for what we have now? the Clean air, the drinking water, the wildlife? Those lessons are not being taught now, why would they be taught in the future, in another language? When they are so clearly obstacles to profit for the ruling class?
 
It is not about the world as we wish it was. It is about the world as it is. Godspeed to those who would try to make it better, but I feel that in the long run, Mexico's huge population problems and disparity in opportunity will hurt us badly. that is why I wish that these bright, strong young working men and women would fix their nations rather than expending their lives and energy here.


Fix the system
Emily
Emily
May 21, 2009 02:52 PM
Excellent article. We need meaningful immigration reform so that we stop demonizing and persecuting human beings who are just trying to make a living and who are being good members of the community, even paying taxes (payroll, social security) although they'll never benefit from them if they never become legal citizens. There are push and pull factors at work in migration -- danger or lack of opportunity in country of origin, and paying jobs (albeit often exploitative ones) in country of destination -- and those forces are much more systemic than just an individual person's decision. The point is not to ignore the laws, but rather fix them so they respect human rights and keep governments and corporations accountable, not just force poor people to pick between bad options (poverty or exploitation).
Mexico should be Ashamed
Brad
Brad
May 28, 2009 07:20 PM
The Mexican government should be ashamed that their own citizens must go to a neighboring country for opportunity. They seem unwilling to fix the corruption of their dysfunctional government, but must be happy to see their people go north, because of the billions they send back every year. Why else would the Mexican government publish a pamphlet on how to cross the border illegally?

They have no shame, but that doesn't stop them from being shameful.
The Mexican upper class just watches and laughs
Jeremy  McClain
Jeremy McClain
May 28, 2009 08:41 PM
As an American citizen living in Mexico for 5 years I have developed a little bit of insight into the source of immigration problems. Although we may blame the Mexican government for its incompetent and corrupt ways, we must realize that the government is just an extension of the wealthy class. Mexico is an obscenely wealthy country, but that wealth is held by a very small minority. This (supposedly patriotic) sector of Mexican society has never invested in their country and probably never will. They know that the US will support their lower classes, hence they will never have to invest any of their wealth in development or social welfare. But just to make sure there isn't mutiny, they invest massively in anti-American propaganda (not so subtely) in the monopolized excuse for media (2 media giants control basically everything) that is Mexican news. This "divide and conquer" technique utilizing ethnocentrism and nationalism occurs on both sides of the border and works to divide the lower and middle classes in the Mexico and US that have a lot more in common than do the wealthy classes that play them as pawns on the globalized economic chessboard.
jose bocanegra
jose bocanegra
Feb 16, 2011 11:55 PM
I was brought to this country when i was 3 months of age, now let me repeat that again "3months of age". and now I am 20 years of age. I have grown up in the community of Forks WA. I have Graduated from Forks High school, been Cross County Varsity Captain for junior and senior year, Wrestling captain junior and senior year. After high school I wanted to Join the Military, and attend a University. Its not easy when you grow up with some one you think is your mother, and one day a stranger walks to your home and says "That's not your mother, your mother is over here". That breaks my heart, its breaks my heart to see a little kid get taken form a mother or father who raised him, fed him, put a shirt on his back, showed him how to live a good life, to fight for his family when they called in help, to be the blood that pumps threw his veins and love his mother or father with his heart....The United states "America" is my mother and father...it has given me an education, it has raised me, it has Planted in me the seed of an American...but what good dose that do if I can not fight for her. When my words are not worth anything to the recruiter, when my school achievements are worth nothing, ah but paying taxis now that's something to think about, but still nothing. My birth country is a mother i do not know. The United States is the mother i do know. And I will be nailed to her soil before I am taken from her home.