Climate of fear grips Forks illegal immigrants
The drowning of an illegal immigrant in Forks has heightened tensions between some in this Olympic Peninsula town of 3,500 and the federal agency that enforces immigration laws along the nation's borders.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Editor's note: Commenting has been disabled on this story. Stories dealing with illegal immigration often result in comments that violate our rules against personal attacks. Because of that, we sometimes disable comments on sensitive stories. This story is particularly sensitive because it involves someone's death.
FORKS, Clallam County —
Benjamin Roldan Salinas and his girlfriend, Crisanta, knew they were pushing their luck.
They'd spent much of the day in mid-May harvesting salal in Olympic National Forest.
Just before leaving, the couple — he Mexican, she Guatemalan and both in the country illegally — stopped in a different section of the forest to gather extra bundles of the hardy brush used in floral arrangements and sold around the world. The extra cash would help pay for gas.
But that last stop, in an area where they had no permission to pick, would prove fatal.
A Forest Service officer followed the couple for about a mile before pulling them over on suspicion of illegal harvesting.
He then called the U.S. Border Patrol.
What happened next has heightened tensions between some in this Olympic Peninsula town — better known as the fictional setting for the vampire-themed series "Twilight" — and the federal agency that enforces immigration laws along the nation's borders.
Latinos — many in the country illegally — represent nearly one-quarter of the 3,500 residents of Forks at the same time the Border Patrol has been stepping up its presence here.
On that day in May, Crisanta, 27, ran when a border agent responded to the Forest Service officer's call for a translator. She stumbled, fell, was apprehended and spent 10 days in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma before being released on humanitarian grounds so she could care for her two young children.
Salinas, 44, also ran, eluding the agent by jumping into the fast-moving Sol Duc River — and then disappearing.
His family and friends searched for him every day for three weeks, at one point even consulting psychics before his decomposing body was discovered tangled in brush four miles from where he went into the river.
Border Patrol's presence
The circumstances surrounding his death have raised questions about the Border Patrol's expanding presence here, dividing townspeople and creating concern among some in local law enforcement that it may stop some immigrants from reporting crimes.
"This is a much bigger issue than this one incident," Forks Mayor Bryon Monohon said. "I told staff from (Rep.) Norm Dicks' office last year that I'm not sure I have the ability to maintain the status quo here much longer ... to keep things peacefully and quietly the way they are. We can't keep living this way."
The Border Patrol says its agents are here to do a job.
"We know there are those who don't care for our presence," said Agent Richard Sinks, spokesman for the Border Patrol's office in Blaine. "We are on an international boundary, and our presence is necessary to patrol the border."
Residents say agents cruise Highway 101 through Forks — sometimes three, four vehicles — stopping at gas stations, groceries, outside school events or at the edge of the forest near where immigrants work.
The agents, they say, target Latinos or anyone who might appear to be.
Michelle Ward, a member of the Quileute Tribe, said an agent once approached her trying to determine her ethnicity. "He came up to me at the gas station and started speaking in Spanish," she said, holding her thumb and forefinger slightly apart to show the extent of her Spanish language skills.
Immigrants and their advocates have responded by following agents around town and recording their encounters with residents. They have created a sort of texting tree for quickly sharing information about agent sightings and locations.
The "texting tree"
For generations, natural resources drove the economy in this lush, tranquil corner of the state, but the losses of logging and timber jobs in recent decades have prompted many locals to seek employment elsewhere.
"We lost a lot of rural families who moved away when the work went away," Monohon said. They left behind "lots of cheap housing [and] low-end jobs that nobody wanted to do," and into this mix "immigrants came looking to better their lives."
Many arrived in the 1970s and '80s — mostly young Latin American men who did logging work and planted trees.
These days they are independent contractors who harvest specialty products such as salal, mushrooms, ferns and moss in a $150 million-a-year industry in the state.
Many live in the trailer parks scattered in and around Forks — sometimes two families to an address.
With federal permits costing $150 for two months — those for state and private lands cost more — many say if they work hard they usually can bring home a decent income.
It's how people like Jesus Ensastegui support their families. A Forks resident for 10 years and a cousin of Salinas, the man who drowned, Ensastegui said he's always mindful that agents could be anywhere.
"We go to work, and we have no idea if they'll be parked somewhere nearby," he said.
Ensastegui is part of the communitywide texting tree and said that "sometimes, I'll get a call that Border Patrol is near us. I'll call my wife and ask her to drive around to look for them. I'll wait until she lets me know that it's OK to come home."
Forks Human Rights says it has reports from about 80 local residents apprehended by the Border Patrol between April 2008 and August 2010.
Meanwhile, of the 673 people agents apprehended last year in the Border Patrol's Blaine Sector — which includes Western Washington, Oregon and Alaska — more than half were Mexican.
Sinks, of the Border Patrol, said agents are trained to spot those who may be in the country illegally without resorting to racial profiling. "If we have reasonable suspicion that someone is an illegal immigrant," he said, "it leads to a line of questioning to determine their status."
But Jennifer Shaw, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said agents have been "seeking out those who look or speak a certain way. That can only be described as racial profiling."
A community divided
Some Forks residents, such as James White, believe the agents are targeting Latinos unfairly.
Latinos "get up, go pick brush and don't come back until night," he said. "They don't bother local people."
But others say they appreciate the agents' presence and bemoan that it's becoming difficult for them to do their jobs.
Lyle Lester said agents practically have been driven out of town by all the advocacy.
"Those agents could sit in one store in town and probably take in half the illegals in Forks," he said. "But apparently they're not supposed to do that. I wish they could do their jobs."
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict recalls that, when he was elected in 2006, five Border Patrol agents were assigned to the Port Angeles office, which covers Forks.
Estimates by local law enforcement and others now put that number at 25 to 30, but Border Patrol would not confirm that, citing security concerns.
What is known is that in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, staffing has increased along both the southern and northern borders of the nation. The Blaine Sector alone now has 322 agents — almost as many as were assigned to the entire northern border 10 years ago, according to agency figures.
"I suspect they might be pretty lonely out here," Benedict said. "There's not a whole lot going on."
Life on the run
Most Latino residents say they have encountered a border agent in the area, and some are thinking of moving to other cities — Olympia, maybe, or perhaps Lacey.
Lucritia Stansbury moved to Forks from Olympia five years ago with her husband, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. In Olympia, she said, "when we were pulled over, we were ticketed, paid it and that was that."
Her husband has been deported twice since moving to Forks, she said. She said he now lives in a different Washington city to avoid encounters with agents.
Illegal immigrants say it's not unusual for them to run from agents — as Benjamin Salinas did.
"Either you run or you go to Mexico," said Jesus Ensastegui's wife, Paula.
At the recent funeral for Salinas, which the family held in Olympia to avoid border agents, Crisanta wept as she ran her hands over the casket holding his body, which has been shipped home to Mexico.
While many law-enforcement agencies on the Peninsula use Border Patrol agents as interpreters or for backup, most say they never contact agents to enforce immigration law.
"At no point do our stops turn into immigration stops," Forest Service spokeswoman Donna Nemeth said. The only exception, she said, is when someone flees.
The mayor and the sheriff said their officers don't ask the immigration status of those they encounter on routine stops. And there's an understanding agents won't interrogate crime victims or witnesses. But they are likely to if a person is suspected of committing a crime.
Sheriff Sgt. Brian King said the department wants to put the immigrant community at ease so people feel comfortable reporting crime.
"There's a fear among those in the community that if they have a problem and dial 9-1-1 for the sheriff, that the Border Patrol is in tow with us," he said.
"That's not the case. We have different missions."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420
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