Named after a character in a cowboy book, Police Chief Flint Wright describes himself as pretty conservative.
A portrait of Ronald Reagan hangs in his office, along with photos of John Wayne, and his father and grandfather on horses – capturing the rural lifestyle of Pacific County, which curves around Willapa Bay in the state’s southwest corner.
He doesn’t talk about it much, but he voted for Donald Trump, helping Pacific County go with the Republican presidential candidate for the first time in decades. Among other things, he liked Trump’s promise to secure the borders. Economic migrants are not a problem in his mind – he’s seen how hard they work – but he wondered, “who’s coming with them?” Terrorists, he feared.
Then came the July arrest of Mario Rodriguez by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
“I was kind of in shock, to be blunt with you,” Wright said.
Rodriguez, whose visa had expired, had lived in the area for more than a dozen years. He had worked in bilingual education and periodically tipped police to trouble spots.
“He was real pro-law enforcement,” the police chief said. “Shoot, anybody would like to have him as a neighbor.”
Trump, on the campaign, had talked about kicking out Mexican “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” And that’s the kind of immigration crackdown a lot of people here were expecting.
“Yeah, we don’t want that element,” Wright said. But Rodriguez? The police chief couldn’t believe sending him back to Mexico would do anybody any good.
28 Number of people ICE has arrested in Pacific County this year, according to numbers provided to the Sheriff’s Office.
That kind of shock is reverberating throughout the county as Trump’s toughened immigration policy hits home. ICE has arrested at least 28 people in the county this year, according to numbers provided to the Sheriff’s Office.
While that’s just a small share of the roughly 3,100 ICE arrests overseen by its regional office in Seattle – which covers Washington, Oregon and Alaska – it represents a pronounced upward trajectory. Last year, ICE reported eight Pacific County arrests to the sheriff and for a long stretch of years before that, zero.
In a county of small, close-knit communities – Long Beach, population 1,400, is one of the largest – it’s noticed when someone goes missing. The number is magnified by those who have moved, gone into hiding or followed family after a deportation. People have lost neighbors, schools have lost students and businesses have lost employees.
With its windswept bay and wide-open coast, the county is beautiful and feels remote, especially on the Long Beach peninsula. It is also poor. Some buildings are boarded up. Median household income, about $38,000, is half that of Washington’s.
A limited economy revolves around seafood, cranberries, tourism and, new to the scene, marijuana.
It is not the case that immigrants are the only ones applying. It is the case that immigrants are the only ones willing to stick it out.
Marilyn Sheldon, shellfish farmer
The work can be grueling, particularly in the seafood industry. At sunrise or midnight, workers might be out on the bay’s mudflats, taking advantage of low tide to dig for clams and oysters.
“It is not the case that immigrants are the only ones applying,” said shellfish farmer Marilyn Sheldon. “It is the case that immigrants are the only ones willing to stick it out.”
Some are here legally. Some are not.
So ICE represents a threat that has a huge “ripple effect,” said Steve Gray, a seafood-cannery owner who was boiling crabs one afternoon in his backyard.
“We don’t have Nike. We don’t have Boeing. This is what we do down here,” he said. “Take the main workforce out … you will lose whole industries.”
“Don’t go, Gladys”
The agents started appearing early in the morning, stopping people on their way to work. Or they waited in parking lots. Mysterious figures unlike the local law-enforcement officials some knew from high school, the ICE officials knew names.
“Mario?” one asked in late July after Rodriguez got out of his car in a post-office parking lot. He was studying to be a teacher at that point, having left his longtime school-district job that involved supporting bilingual and migrant families.
“I turned around,” Rodriguez recounted. “I extended my hand. I was even smiling.”
“Do you know why we’re here?” asked the agent.
Rodriguez did. A Mexican native with family in the U.S., he once had a visa to visit this country, but it expired years ago.
“They were very kind,” Rodriguez said of the two agents. They apologized for using handcuffs, asked if he wanted to switch the radio station in their car and gave him a burrito when they got to their office in Portland.
But that didn’t change his eventual destination, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where he spent four weeks. He is now out on bond as his case winds through immigration court.
Agents also targeted Gladys Diaz, in an unusual way.
According to her longtime boyfriend, who works in the seafood industry and spoke on the condition of anonymity, Diaz posted an online ad for a piñata she had made. The man who answered it asked to meet in the parking lot of a bank rather than the address she offered.
It seemed a little suspicious.
“Don’t go, Gladys,” her boyfriend yelled as she drove away that June day with their young daughters. She either didn’t hear or didn’t listen.
Shortly afterward, while he did yard work around their apartment complex, he saw ICE agents walking toward him with his family. They were handing over the kids and taking Diaz away. His 12-year-old was crying.
“Why you don’t take us all?” he asked.
They said Diaz had a prior deportation order. A decade ago, she was caught sneaking across the border, sent back and prohibited from re-entering the U.S. for years, according to her boyfriend. She tried again the very next day, and made it.
Diaz and two daughters, both born in the U.S., are now back in Mexico.
“I miss my family. I need my family,” said her boyfriend, who plans to join them but wants to work a little longer to save money.
“Three, four, five, six times a day,” he said he calls to hear their voices.
“Neighbors just snatched”
ICE activity isn’t new to Pacific County. In 2006, the agency raided a seafood company and arrested 16 workers. In the 1980s and ‘90s, immigration officers conducted sweeps that took away dozens at a time, said Sheriff Scott Johnson.
But the Obama years, despite a record level of deportations nationally, seemed to leave the county’s immigrants pretty much alone.
In Washington and nationally, ICE still isn’t arresting as many people as it did before Obama scaled back enforcement in his final years, largely by directing immigration officials to focus on serial and serious criminals and those who sneaked across the border recently.
Under President Donald Trump, ICE “continues to prioritize its enforcement resources to focus on aliens who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” according to an email from a spokeswoman.
But Trump, in an executive order his first week in office, broadened the grounds that deem someone threatening: Convictions aren’t necessary, all crimes count no matter how serious, and so does an unheeded deportation order reaching back decades.
Trump also freed ICE to arrest anyone else it deems fit. “The agency does NOT exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” the spokeswoman wrote.
Although all the numbers are not in for fiscal 2017, the latest count shows ICE almost tripled arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions in the agency’s Seattle region, to 696.
Social-justice activists in Pacific County, as elsewhere, mobilized. Local members of a new grass-roots ACLU group joined with others concerned about the ICE crackdown to support affected families, raising money and distributing necessities.
Stephanie Serrano, an activist in north Pacific County, expressed frustration that “so many people have said ‘this is not my issue.’ ”
It’s true that, for many locals, other issues rank higher, said Nan Malin, a longtime officer of Pacific GOP. While traditionally a Democratic stronghold, the county has always leaned conservative in some ways. Property- and gun-rights loom large, she said.
Feeling overburdened by environmental regulations, many also believe that “Seattle politics are completely against rural Washington,” Malin added.
If that factored into the county’s Trump vote, so did health care – at least for Malin. A sharp critic of Trump, whom she doesn’t consider a true conservative, she didn’t know who she was going to vote for.
Right before the election, she got an insurance-renewal notice informing her that she could no longer see her doctors across the Columbia River in Oregon. She blamed Obamacare regulations.
We shouldn’t be ripping families apart. It seems very Gestapo.
Nan Malin, a longtime officer of Pacific GOP
“I reached over, took out my ballot – and did not vote for Hillary,” she said, talking over tea in her 1905 house, built when the peninsula served as a getaway for Portland’s gentry.
Many also liked what they heard from Trump on immigration, she said, even if it played a minor role in their vote.
“Sure, people want to see a wall built,” she said. “They want sanity in immigration.”
But the way ICE is carrying out Trump’s policy locally, described in poignant detail by a Chinook Observer series called “Stories from the Heart” – “none of the Republicans I talk to are happy,” she said.
“We shouldn’t be ripping families apart,” Malin said. “It seems very Gestapo.”
ICE declined to make anyone available for interviews about its Pacific County activity.
A lack of information adds to the sense of unease.
Wright, the police chief, talked about “neighbors just snatched” and about sitting in church on a Sunday wondering whether the Hispanic family he hasn’t seen in a while has been arrested or is in hiding.
Johnson said someone recently called the Sheriff’s Office about neighbors they hadn’t seen in a while. He said there’s no way of knowing whether they’re really missing or taken by ICE.
The sheriff has pushed the agency for notification of when agents are in the county and who leaves with them in handcuffs. In a recent meeting with him, assistant field directors of ICE’s Seattle and Portland offices agreed to the first part.
He consequently knew, as he recounted the meeting in his South Bend office, that agents were around that very day. He also learned from ICE the next morning they had arrested a 35-year-old man.
ICE won’t give him names, however. “It’s a privacy issue,” Johnson said officials told him. “I don’t buy that. If we arrest somebody, your name’s on the internet.” (His department’s website posts jail bookings.)
If you have someone’s assigned immigration case number, or an exact name (not always commonly known with double surnames) and country of origin, you can check where a detainee is being held through a federal website.
Unlike with most courts in the U.S., there is no public place to look up a case file in the immigration system. Arrest reports, lawyers’ briefs and hearing transcripts are generally inaccessible.
Despite his agitation, the sheriff is viewed with suspicion by some local activists and immigrants, who believe his office is collaborating with ICE. They note Johnson, along with other local sheriffs, met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a visit to Seattle in September.
“I respect the position,” said Johnson, a Democrat.
In 2011, the sheriff opted the county into “Secure Communities,” a federal program that runs fingerprints of people held in local jails and prisons through FBI and Department of Homeland Security databases. If immigration violations are found, ICE will follow up.
One minute they’re here. Another minute they’re not. It’s not like there’s any warning.
Marilyn Sheldon, shellfish farmer
Johnson said he sees that as a way of catching, and possibly deporting, serious criminals.
He strongly denies working with ICE in other ways. Like many local law-enforcement officials, he said it’s important that crime victims and witnesses feel safe coming to his office, no matter their immigration status.
“I don’t think I’ve ever in seven years been so misperceived on any issue,” he said.
Shellfish farmers face many uncertainties, Sheldon explained.
The weather is a big one, periodically disrupting work on the water.
ICE is the new big storm, blowing in periodically to take essential workers.
“One minute they’re here. Another minute they’re not,” Sheldon said. “It’s not like there’s any warning.”
She and other employers say they get required paperwork for every worker – though documents might be fake – and don’t know who is illegally here.
“It’s been a huge impact,” said Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, vice president of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, of ICE’s arrests. Many of the area’s two dozen companies are small businesses. Losing key employees is a big deal. One, she said, lost a worker of 25 years.
And the industry already faced a labor shortage.
Workers need to have an understanding of tides; they carry tide tables like Bibles, arranging their days accordingly. Some operate boats. Others shuck oysters or process fish, not easy when done quickly.
Paid by volume, they sometimes work seven day weeks, or days that take in both early-morning and late-night tides cycles.
“Don’t you want people to work?” Sheldon asked. “Why don’t we say you can’t sell cigarettes to illegal immigrants?”
She was joking. But things didn’t make sense to her.
It was hurting her business. So many people have been arrested or moved that she can no longer fill empty positions. She has had scale back orders and turn away customers.
“Tell him I say hi”
In Long Beach Culbertson Park, as after-school football practice got started, 10-year-old Danner Walters broke into tears.
He was on the sidelines talking about his friend Joel. A week before, Joel left for Mexico with his mom and siblings to rejoin his dad, who had been deported months before.
“We’ve been best friends since kindergarten,” Danner said.
They ate lunch together every day. With schoolmate Dominic Bautista they were “the three amigos,” said Dominic’s mom, Lacey Bautista. The boys had a two-day sleepover to say goodbye, and they posted pictures of that last time together on Instagram with hearts and sad-faced emojis.
“It’s been really hard,” said Danner’s mom, Alisha Vitkoczy. As far as her son and his friends are concerned, Joel is just one of them, she said. They wonder: “Why did he have to go and not them?”
Other kids are confused, too, said mom Heather Guidinger, listening to the conversation. She had a tough time explaining why students were disappearing – about 20 in the Ocean Beach School District this year, according to Superintendent Jenny Risner, and three of five moms who made up an advisory committee on bilingual and migrant students. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, she would say.
Joel and Danner try to call and video chat every day, though the spotty internet connection in Mexico doesn’t always cooperate. Vitkoczy made a few attempts on this afternoon, just enough for the boys to say hi and for Joel to talk about the house his parents are building.
“Is that Joel?” asked another boy, pausing on his way to practice. “Tell him I say hi.”
Up the peninsula a dozen miles in Nahcotta, Sandy Nielson was also missing Joel and his family.
A retired schoolteacher, Nielson had a special fondness for Joel, whose family lived in a trailer a few doors down from her house overlooking the bay. He was 5 when they met – “a kind, charming little boy” who needed some help with school, she said. She gave it to him.
She eventually got to know his mom, Maria Diaz – sister to Gladys Diaz, the piñata maker – his dad, Miguel Meliton, crew leader for a small shellfish farmer, and two younger sisters.
She went to weekend volleyball games Meliton would host in his backyard, a picnic always in progress. When Nielson had heavy things to carry at home, Meliton would help.
After ICE stopped Meliton as he got into his truck one March morning, Nielson worried about Diaz, left as the sole provider. From Nielson’s living room, she would later see Diaz on the mudflats, clamming into the night.
“Rain would be crashing down and she would be out there,” Nielson said.
In Puerto Vallarta, Meliton was missing Pacific County.
He lived there 18 years, or as it felt to the 35-year-old Meliton, “all my life.”
He went home about 10 years ago to see his dying father. When he tried sneaking back into the U.S., he was caught. He made it across the next time, but the deportation order on his record made him a priority for removal under Trump.
He described this from a little fruit store he now runs. It’s OK money, by Mexico standards. Tourists buy from him, and he makes about $200 every two weeks.
It doesn’t go far, though, and is nothing like the $3,500 he earned in Nahcotta. He hardly paid any rent there either, because his boss owned the trailer and gave him a steep discount for growing oyster seeds in two tanks in his garage. When they got big, he would dump them into the bay.
While all his family is now in Mexico, they aren’t living together yet. Having arrived first, he rented just a small room.
So Diaz and the kids went to stay with her brother about two hours away. That’s where she and Meliton are building a house, and thinking of opening a restaurant – if they don’t go to Canada, Meliton’s latest dream.
Joel didn’t like Mexico when he first arrived. He missed his friends and talked all the time about the heat.
“Don’t be sad,” his dad told him. “You can go back anytime.”
Joel and his siblings are American citizens.
He likes it better now. He has new friends and a new school. But already he’s thinking about returning to Pacific County. Danner’s mom invited him to visit in the summer.
Sure, Meliton said. Two weeks. Three weeks. The three amigos could be together again.