FORKS, Wash. – Oscar and Olivia, 10-year-old red-headed twins – his hair cut short, hers long down her back – browse through the shelves at the Forks branch library. They pause to pull out a book that catches their interest and add it to their pile.
It’s dusk. The librarians are pushing chairs back under the tables, getting ready to close for the day. As Oscar and Olivia make their way to the check-out desk, they glance at their mother, Tina, gazing out the window, watching out of habit for border patrol vehicles.
Once a lively logging town on the remote northern Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, Forks has faded into a quiet community of 3,300 people, with modest homes and trailer parks, a grocery store, gas stations and pizza places. The misty air is scented with smoke from wood stoves.
“It’s so neat to live in a small town. All of my family, my support system is here,” says Tina.
Until a couple of years ago, Tina, an American, never gave a thought to immigration, border patrols, detention centers or the possibility of moving to Mexico with her children to keep her family together. Now, it never leaves her thoughts.
Tina knew before she married her husband that he had come to the United States from Mexico to work when he was teenager, without documentation. No one in Forks cared, no one ever asked, and it made no difference to her or her family.
“He is a hard worker, a great husband and loving dad. My family loves him,” says Tina.
But now her husband, 29, has become a prisoner in his own home, leaving only to go to work. Her children live under a constant cloud, afraid they could lose their father at any moment.
Though the community of Forks is 200 miles from the main border-crossing into Canada and 1,300 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, it has turned into an unlikely battleground between the U.S. Border Patrol and families who have lived here for decades.
The heavily guarded U.S. southern border with Mexico is well known, but most Americans aren’t aware of the dramatically beefed-up Border Patrol presence on the northern border – from Washington state to Maine – where many say racial profiling and human rights violations are routine under the guise of national security.
Nationally, the Border Patrol budget has more tripled in the last decade, from $1 billion in 2000 to $3.5 billion last year.
Since 9/11, the number of Border Patrol agents along the northern border has increased six-fold, from 340 to nearly 2,100. Meanwhile, the number of people apprehended has tumbled – down 78 percent in some areas including Washington, according to the US Border Patrol reports.
Many are questioning the need and the expense of the hugely expanded northern border patrol. Even some agents themselves complain of being under worked.
Too many agents, with too little to do, fill their time following and watching residents in quiet communities, like Forks, that are far from the border.
Growing Up Afraid
As Tina drives her children home from the library, she scans the side streets and empty parking lots for signs of Border Patrol agents. It is nearly time for her husband to be on his way home from work.
“They used to have four agents here; now they have 50. We see them every day, sometimes in unmarked cars and trucks,” says Tina.
Video by Mike Kane for Equal Voice.
Agents park outside the grocery stores or along the forest roads where men are working, or idle their vehicles across the street from gas stations as families fuel their cars. With their high-beams on, agents follow inches behind cars at night.
“My kids ask, ‘Are they going to take me?’ They are afraid,” says Tina.
Even the youngest children in Forks know that parents can go to work and never come back home. They know that whole families disappear in the night.
“La Migra,” the four- and five-year-olds whisper to each other. Immigration.
“If their dad isn’t home from work by six, my daughter is in tears,” says Tina. “Olivia would be so devastated if something ever happened to her dad. It scares me. We have seen the effect on other kids.”
Under U.S. law, once deported, an immigrant must wait 10 years to apply for a visa to return, an unimaginable amount of time for a parent to be separated from his or her children. Parents who are deported usually try to return quickly to their family, risking the dangerous southern border crossing, and a prison sentence if they are caught in the country after being deported.
Nearly 5.5 million children in the United States have an undocumented parent, and most of those children are American citizens, according to a report by the Applied Research Center. In just the first six months of last year, 46,486 parents with American children were deported, according to the report.
“I pray every night. You never know what will happen. It runs through my mind all the time,” says Tina. “You try not to think about the worst that can happen, but you can’t help it.”
Families are thrown into poverty when a parent who is the primary earner is deported, or a family that depended on two incomes loses one of them. Once self-sufficient and independent families lose their homes or are forced onto public assistance.
Manuela Velasquez, a Forks preschool teacher, has lived in Forks for more than 30 years. She worries about the long-term effects on the children who live in fear of the border patrol, and the long-term consequences for the community.
“Parents go to work and don’t know if they will be coming home,” she says.
Children too young to understand why their parents have gone to Mexico without them wonder why they have been left behind. And children, who have seen their parents taken away, handcuffed, are traumatized.
“Our job is to keep America safe,” says Border Patrol spokesman Jeffrey Jones, based in Port Angeles, Wash. “We are here to secure the border, to prevent and apprehend terrorists and weapons and enforce the immigration laws.
“Our mission 24/7 is to apprehend everyone who crosses the border illegally. We have very little discretion. We have a job to do. It’s not personal,” he says.
The Port Angeles office is part of the sprawling Blaine Sector that includes Alaska, Oregon, and the western half of Washington state.
Last year, the 331 agents in Blaine Sector made 591 arrests for everything from trying to enter without documents to transporting drugs or weapons. Of those, just 47 cases were submitted for prosecution. Actual convictions aren’t reported.
The Border Patrol doesn’t release apprehension data below the sector level.
However, Border Patrol Agent Christian Sanchez told the Congressional Transparency Caucus last year that the Port Angeles office where he works is “in a remote area, with no border activity.”
“This is a bad combination for bored, high energy men to be in,” Sanchez testified. He said he estimates that four agents would be a realistic size for the office.
As bad as it is for families in Forks, some say it could get worse. A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new $9.8 million Border Patrol station in Port Angeles is being discussed for September. The new office includes kennels for a canine patrol, two holding cells, and space for 50 agents.
In turn, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit in May against the Border Patrol, accusing agents of stopping vehicles and interrogating drivers and passengers without reason or cause only “based on complexion or skin color,” according to the lawsuit.
The stops are “not focused on persons that the Border Patrol believes to have recently crossed the border from Canada,” the lawsuit says.
American-born Ismael Ramos Contreras, who has lived in Forks most of his life, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He is a recent graduate of Forks High School and was student body president. He works at the local grocery store nights and weekends. Nearly everyone knows him.
But none of that has kept Border Patrol officers from stopping him when he is driving, asking him for his papers, where he was born, and questioning others in the car with him.
“The Border Patrol stopped us once and was speaking Spanish to one of my friends. My friend is a Native American; he doesn’t even speak Spanish. He didn’t know what they were saying to him,” says Ramos Contreras.
“I am angry that I can’t go into town shopping or ride with friends without getting pulled over,” he says.
Stephanie Browning, co-owner of the Shell gas station in Forks has told Border Patrol agents in no uncertain terms to stay out of her store and stop harassing her customers.
“I told them not to do their duty, or whatever they think is their duty, in here,” she says. “It is scary for my employees and for my customers when they come in here with their guns to harass and intimidate.
“I don’t appreciate it.”
Tina’s husband gets dressed while the rest of the family is still asleep and joins two other men in a pickup truck. They drive slowly and silently along the quiet main street of Forks, heading out to the rain-drenched woods surrounding the town to harvest salal.
Salal, a broad-leafed evergreen shrub native to the Pacific Northwest, is a critical part of the $250 million Pacific Northwest floral greenery industry. Harvesting the stems is backbreaking work, but a good picker can make $100 a day or more, enough to provide for a family in Forks.
When the men reach the spot where they’ll work, they slip into hooded rain jackets and pants and begin snapping branches from the thick bushes. They gather the long stems into bunches, rubber-band them, and add the bunches to the growing pile on their backs.
They pause only when they hear the tires of the Border Patrol vehicles rolling slowly along the narrow forest roads. The men press closer to the bushes, becoming invisible, praying the trucks will pass without stopping, hoping agents won’t emerge with questions, demanding identification.
“When I see the Border Patrol on the road, it just depresses me,” says George “Hop” Dhooghe, who wholesales salal. “They have hurt so many families in this town. I can understand that they need to protect our border from terrorists, they should not be terrorizing families that have helped our country grow.”
Bundles of greenery are piled high along one long wall of Dhooghe’s massive warehouse. Normally the building would be almost overflowing, he says. But the immigrant workers are all leaving, tired of being harassed. And no one else in the community wants the jobs.
“It has been devastating for my business,” says Dhooghe. “Some of these families have worked for me for 20 years.”
Border Patrol agents, even those assigned to the northern border, are required to speak Spanish. Often, local law enforcement agents call Border Patrol for assistance in stops if they think they might need help translating.
Last year Benjamin Roldan Salinas, working in the woods, jumped into Sol Duc River to escape a Border Patrol agent. His body was found weeks later.
As a result of a complaint filed with the United States Department of Agriculture by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, forest service officers nationwide were ordered to end their policy of routinely calling Border Patrol agents to translate when they make stops.
Similar complaints have been filed with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security about other law enforcement agencies routinely calling Border Patrol agents for interpretation.
The drowning of Roldan Salinas heightened tensions and provided proof to many on the Olympic Peninsula that the situation had turned deadly.
Community Roots Severed
Latino families began moving to Forks in the late 1980s, attracted to the quiet small town and willing to work the low-paying jobs that remained when the logging industry faded. Mexican restaurants opened on the main street, the Catholic Church added a mass in Spanish. The newcomers married, started families, worked and shopped in the community.
“We used to have so many celebrations, La Quinceañera – a ‘sweet 15’ party – with fancy dresses, tiaras and cakes. They would be held at the Elks Lodge or at restaurants, with music and dancing,” says Marta, a friend of Tina’s.
The women are part of a close group: They text each other when they spot the Border Patrol making rounds through the town, parked outside the woods where their husbands are cutting salal, or cruising slowly through a neighborhood.
Marta and her husband have been together for 16 years, married almost that long. She’s Native American, a member of the Makah Tribe, whose reservation is on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. He came from Mexico as a teenager, making his way to the town of Forks, where he lived a normal life for 18 years. One night last year, Marta’s husband didn’t come home.
“You can’t understand the pain until it happens to you,” says Marta.
“Here is a husband who wants to be with his family, who supports his family,” said Marta. “He works hard, and he supported me through college. I always wanted to work for my tribe, the Makah. I am able to do that now. I have a good job because he supported me.
“It is splitting up families in so many ways,” says Marta.
If Forks is known outside the Olympic Peninsula, it is because it is the setting for the popular Twilight series vampire books and movies. In her blog, author Stephenie Meyer says she was looking for a setting that was remote, surrounded by forest and “ridiculously rainy.”
The popularity of the series sparked a temporary economic boom in Forks during the last few years as fans arrived in tour buses and Twilight-themed shops opened along the main street. But the craze has faded, and most of the shops are dark again.
Unemployment in Forks is between 8 and 10 percent says Mayor Bryon Monohon. He estimates that more than half the Latino population has left in the last six or seven months.
“It makes sense that they would go to a place where they are not dealing with being harassed,” he says.
Others estimate that closer to 75 percent of the Latino families have fled.
Families heading to Oregon, Idaho or California – often move in the middle of the night to avoid questions or being stopped.
Eager to leave, they sell their trailers fast and cheap to the first buyer to make an offer. In some cases, the buyers turn out to be white drug dealers – invisible to the border patrol ‒ making life even more miserable for the neighbors remaining in the trailer parks.
Tina and her husband have talked about moving to Mexico with their children. His parents still live there, and he sends money to help support them.
Olivia, 10, can’t bear the idea of being away from her father, but Forks is her home, and Mexico is unfamiliar except for the occasional brief phone calls with her grandmother there.
“I don’t speak very good Spanish,” she says.
“I wouldn’t mind living down there,” Tina says, hesitating. “But I don’t think my children would have a future.”