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Brushed aside

Washington's floral greens industry falters as beleaguered harvesters leave


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.

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.