Brushed aside

Washington's floral greens industry falters as beleaguered harvesters leave

  • Workers sort and bundle salal at a brush-buying shed in downtown Forks.

    By Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times

On a cold weekday morning in mid-November, three Hispanic men stand behind a hedge at the Forest Service's Quilcene Ranger Station, waiting to buy permits to harvest floral greens in the Olympic National Forest. A white unmarked Bronco screeches into the parking lot and a giant bald man gets out, wearing a plain white T-shirt, jeans and two pistols at his belt. He surprises the men and asks, in Spanish, "Are you from Guatemala?" They run, but he grabs one by the arm. The bald man identifies himself as a U.S. Border Patrol officer, asks the Guatemalan if he wants to fight, forces him into the back seat of the Bronco, and drives off. 

It's the second time in three months that the Border Patrol has arrested suspected illegal immigrants at this ranger station on permit day. In the past, as many as 200 people have shown up at the bimonthly lottery to buy the 50 permits available. But at the November lottery, the Forest Service sold only a dozen or so -- mostly to women protected from arrest by the babies on their hips. 

Here in the Pacific Northwest, non-timber resources such as mushrooms, evergreen boughs, floral greens and specialty woods have long been harvested for profit. In the 1980s, however, the harvest boomed as global markets opened up and Hispanics joined the workforce. For decades, "brush" wholesalers relied on abundant immigrant labor to stay competitive in a global floral market, while immigrants flocked to the industry because it didn't require English language skills or legal documents. By some estimates, the brush industry now generates around $250 million a year in Oregon and Washington, mainly through sales of floral greens and evergreen boughs. Most of the big wholesale brush sheds are located around south Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, where easy access to markets combines with the perfect temperature and forest type for growing salal, a woody understory shrub that is the poster species for the floral greens industry. If you've ever received a bouquet of roses, chances are good that it contained salal picked from forests on the Olympic Peninsula by an immigrant from Mexico or Guatemala.

For the most part, the immigrants and wholesalers, both fearful of more regulation and inspection, have kept a low profile. But now the increased Border Patrol presence has attracted public attention to the Peninsula's immigrant communities. And the recent immigration crackdown -- together with declining natural resources and a weakening economy -- has left both those immigrants and the industry itself facing an uncertain future. 

After 9/11, the Bush administration pumped more money and manpower into efforts to secure the Canadian border. In 2001, there were only 340 Border Patrol agents along the entire Northern border; today, there are over 1,500. On the Olympic Peninsula, the number of agents increased dramatically after 2007, as Southern-border agents transferred to Port Angeles under a voluntary relocation program. Since then, the number of agents in Port Angeles has increased from four to 24.

Last August, the agency began conducting random checkpoints on major highways at the north end of the Peninsula. The intensity of the checkpoints took residents by surprise. Over the next two months, in five separate checkpoints, agents stopped nearly 5,000 vehicles and detained around two dozen people, including 15 suspected illegal immigrants. In September, an 18-year-old Forks High School honor student and wrestling star named Edgar Ayala was detained at a checkpoint and deported to Mexico, where he hadn't lived since he was a toddler.

Ayala's arrest sparked protests across the Peninsula. At a November town meeting in Chimacum, about 350 people showed up to protest the checkpoints. "Everybody (is) opposed to immigration stops because they're taking away our individual rights," says Mike Gurling, visitor's center manager for the Forks Chamber of Commerce. Last February, Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, asking her to review the use of checkpoints. The checkpoints have stopped, at least for now. 

But for undocumented immigrants on the Olympic Peninsula -- particularly in towns like Forks that have large immigrant populations -- the checkpoints are only part of the story. Immigrants have been detained in their homes, at gas stations, at traffic stops, at the Hispanic grocery store and out in the woods. According to Lesley Hoare, whose University of Washington master's thesis concerns the local immigrant community, at least 60 people have been arrested in Forks alone since last fall.   Across the Peninsula, 187 people were detained by the Border Patrol last year, says Michael Bermudez, Border Patrol spokesman for the Blaine, Wash., sector.

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