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Northwest Town Rides Ups And Downs Of 'Broken' Immigration System

BREWSTER, Wash. - There's one word that politicians almost always use when they talk about the U.S. immigration system. That word is “broken.” But what does that really mean? Residents of the small town of Brewster, Wash., know. For decades, immigrants have come from Mexico, often illegally, to work the surrounding apple and cherry orchards. Bewster, it turns out, is a microcosm of how the immigration debate is playing out.

Most people in Brewster's immigrant community either have heard about or remember December 1997. That was when “la migra” came. A Border Patrol plane flew overhead, vans and buses pulled up near a fruit packing facility outside of town. Lucia Dalabera remembers.

“The saddest part,” says Dalabera in Spanish, “was the families.”

Mothers sent back to Mexico while their husbands and children stayed in this small town in north central Washington along the Columbia River.

Then came the second raid in March 1998. It was exactly three months later to the day, leading people to wonder for years when the next one would be.

“I lived in fear,” says Dalabera, “always wondering when immigration would come find me.”

It took until the fall of 2009 for the next big raid to come. And it was far bigger. But this one didn't come with planes or vans. By most accounts, it came in the form of paperwork.

“We were given a letter that said there's no more work," recalls Dalabera. "Yes, it was in a different form this time, but the result was the same.”

Gebbers Farms is Brewster’s biggest employer and one of the largest apple growers in the nation. It was the target of the Obama administration’s new brand of immigration raid called an audit. By 2010, Gebbers had been forced to switch to a guest-worker program. Five hundred undocumented workers, maybe more, were fired. It was a huge hit for a town of 2,300 people.

Three years later, the initial panic has subsided. Members of the high school baseball team practice batting before the sun disappears behind the mountains.

It's hard to say what exactly happened to all the workers who were fired. But one thing is clear: Many people stayed and found work elsewhere using a different name.

Baseball coach Jerrod Riggan says in the end, not much has changed in Brewster.

“I would say it had no effect. I would say, more workers came in and filled the roles that were lost. Gebbers Farms is a pretty big employer and when they have a need they gotta fill it.”

But members of the Hispanic community say a lot has changed for them. Minerva Alvarado owns a clothing shop on Main Street in Brewster. She sells clothes for baptisms, communion, birthdays, weddings.

But ever since the audit, Alvarado says fewer people are throwing big parties.

“People are trying to save," Alvarado says in Spanish. "There's less job security. People keep waiting for immigration to come again.”

Next door, Esteban Camacho runs a grocery store and deli. He serves homemade Mexican bread and tacos. But he’s also learned how to make coconut rice and jerk chicken for hundreds of Jamaican workers who now work the orchards on seasonal guest worker visas.

Camacho says they’re bussed into town only a few times a week. And they send almost all of their money home.

“Business is getting a little better but never going to be the same as before," he says. "I'm pretty sure about that.”

Gebbers Farms itself has remained silent on the audit. The company did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. But according to the Washington Farm Labor Association, Gebbers is one of 35 growers now using the guest worker program. The industry complains it's an expensive system that requires a company to coordinate with six different government agencies. And it still doesn't provide enough workers. The association estimates as many as 70 percent of agricultural workers in Washington are not “work authorized.”

Ron Oules is the police chief in Brewster. He says there has been a noticeable decline in calls to the police since the audit, which he attributes to the strict criteria for guest worker visa holders. But in the end, Oules says the federal government didn’t stop the flow of undocumented workers to Brewster.

“It did nothing! That's the thing – it hit the media and it looks like this great big thing, but the reality – the end result truly is, other than putting a financial burden on a local business and disrupting the lives of the residents around here, did it truly make a change? I don't believe so, no.”

Oules points to one indication of that: school enrollment didn't go down, as predicted. It went up.

You get an idea of the sheer magnitude of the agricultural industry here on a hill overlooking Gebbers' vast orchards.

“It's phenomenal really when you think about it – that it's by human hands that these apples get picked,” says Helen Davis. She works for a domestic violence center in Omak. Her own family is originally from Mexico and she works closely with immigrants in Brewster.

Davis says some of the fired Gebbers workers who did leave have started to come back. Meanwhile, she’s been watching the political tides turn this year in favor of some sort of immigration reform. But Davis has heard that before.

“I've always said, if we could have politicians out here, standing here watching the people work -- and I have thought about this so often -- to invite them to come up here. And just watching, just listening.”

Davis points off in the distance where there's a bend in the Columbia River. Around that bend are even more orchards, all the way north to the border.