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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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