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Northwest Growers, Undocumented Workers Wait And Worry

In Washington state, experts say probably more than half of the workers harvesting the apples you eat and the asparagus you grill are undocumented. And farmers and undocumented workers are bracing for deportations President Donald Trump has promised.

A mother and grandmother named Mirna is the head of a large family in eastern Washington. All of her six children and two baby grandchildren were born here -- they are citizens. But Mirna is an undocumented Mexican immigrant. When she was a kid, she was brought up to live with relatives in Washington state after both of her parents died.

She pressed her cheeks with both hands nervously as we spoke. With Trump in office, her family feels in dangerous limbo. When Mirna drives, she said she’s even more careful than before.

Recently, her children offered to take Mirna to Portland for a birthday shopping trip. The kids wanted her to see the waterfalls, but Mirna’s not going.

She said she prefers to stay put, safe -- and give her kids a hug.

Mirna works for $10.75 an hour at a fruit packing warehouse. At her work there is also fear. Mirna’s friends were warning each other about raids in Benton City and Spokane. It’s unclear if the raids were real, but it was still scary.

The family’s backup plan if their Mirna is deported? Her two oldest daughters would take care of the rest of the kids.

‘This country relies on migrant labor'

Two hours away, Wayne has a completely different backup plan.

“I could rent this whole place out and go live on a deserted island someplace and have a nice sun tan and probably have a big smile on my face more than I already do,” he said.

That’s the dream, right?

Wayne’s family has owned this asparagus farm for two generations. I’m not using last names in this story -- because nobody I spoke to wants to attract the attention of immigration enforcement.

“You know, last thing I want to do is have a perishable crop and nobody to cut it,” Wayne said. “You miss a day and all of a sudden you’re losing thousands upon thousands of dollars.”

That’s a potential reality. And here’s a fact: Everyone on his farm has a lot to do right now.

“Yeah, it’s just spring startup,” Wayne said. “Getting everything done.”

And here’s another fact: Wayne’s workforce is mainly Latino. He figures he probably has some undocumented workers. But under the current system, there’s no way for him to know right now how many he has.

He said less cumbersome guest worker and immigration policies would help.

When I asked Wayne how he voted in the presidential election, he answered with a laugh, “Does it matter? Yeah, I voted for Trump. Yeah, doesn’t bother me. You know, he’ll find out -- we need people to get work done. And if they come in and take out a bunch of illegals, they take ’em out.”

He’s seen it happen before under a new president. Every farmer here has. He doesn’t want it to happen again now. Especially not right now. There’s irrigation to sort out and machinery to repair.

“This country relies on migrant labor. And it’s very hard for this country to function without their help,” Wayne said. “That is the ultimate reality that every administration soon finds out.”

But if a raid happens first, Wayne said he can’t complain.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.