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‘Everyone is affected.’ Immigration raids turn Oregon city into ghost town Oregon city into ghost town
Cesar Mora runs Zapateria El Jalicience, a clothing store in downtown Woodburn. Men used to come in every Saturday to buy leather boots and cowboy hats for weekend parties.
Then President Donald Trump signed an executive order beefing up immigration enforcement. Federal immigration agents detained 11 men at a Woodburn gas station, leaving workers afraid to go to their jobs and children terrified to attend school.
Boots made of ostrich, crocodile and eel hadn’t been touched in weeks. Mora’s business is down 80 percent this year.
“I depend on people, whether they are legal or illegal,” Mora said in Spanish.
Across the country, undocumented immigrants say they now live in fear of deportation. But most cities are only marginally changed by the immigration anxieties of a minority group that lives in the shadows.
In Woodburn, Latinos aren’t the fringe but the very fabric of the town.
More than a quarter of Woodburn’s 25,000 residents are undocumented. Nearly half struggle to speak English. But this was a town that taught people to dream.
In a generation, Woodburn residents transformed the state’s worst Latino high school graduation rate into its highest. Mexican parents who fled violence to pick berries for $15,000 a year raised American children destined for college degrees and office jobs.
Latino candidates won a spot in the state Legislature, two on the school board and another on the City Council. They became police officers and school principals. Some obtained a green card or citizenship. Others worked and paid taxes but never obtained legal status.
This winter, as fear threatened to turn Woodburn into a ghost town, the dream immigrants had worked decades to build began to unravel.
Fathers who came three and four decades ago have disappeared on their way to work. Mothers refuse to leave their apartments, afraid the federal agents they call “La Migra” may be lurking at the grocery. Teenagers worry they may soon become the legal guardians for younger siblings.
After the arrests, restaurants’ business plunged so sharply that chefs stopped ordering supplies in advance. Catholics say they spend Sunday Mass learning what to do if an agent approaches them. Fliers for community meetings and pro-bono attorneys hang in every restaurant.
“Almost everybody in town is impacted,” said Chuck Ransom, the Woodburn school superintendent. “Everybody knows somebody or is related to somebody for whom that situation is real. Nobody can escape.”
Woodburn lies at the heart of Oregon’s richest agricultural region. Today, Latinos make up 60 percent of Woodburn’s population. But for much of its existence, it was a predominately white town.
Latinos came as guest workers in the 1940s to pick berries, but they lived in labor camps a mile or two outside of town. They left after the summer growing season dissolved into fall.
Woodburn began to shift in the 1980s when federal immigration reform allowed migrant workers to bring their families and apply for citizenship. Around the same time, Oregon expanded and diversified its agricultural offerings. Farmers in the Willamette Valley needed workers year-round to harvest the strawberries, hops and wine grapes that came to bolster Oregon’s economy.
Workers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico decided to stay. They bought homes and enrolled their children in school. One Latina, a nurse, even joined the city council in 1985.
As Latinos moved from labor camps into the city limits, some white residents balked.
In the 1990s, the city tried to prevent Latino farmworkers from building an apartment complex near the high school. A group of residents that called themselves “Americans for the Last Crusade” sent anti-Mexican letters to the developers. Then Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts intervened and ordered the city to approve the housing project.
The 50-unit Nuevo Amanecer complex is 20 years old now, but it still gleams. Kids’ bicycles rest outside every apartment, neon frames next to manicured lawns.
Today Woodburn is the largest city in the state with a Latino majority. The city publishes its newsletter and council meeting minutes in English and Spanish. Every school in the district has a bilingual immersion program. The local radio station broadcasts in four languages, two of which are indigenous to Latin America.
White and Latino residents coexist peacefully, residents say. Two years ago, voters agreed to tax themselves to pay for a $65 million school bond. In a district where most voters are white but 80 percent of students are Latino, that was a sign, the superintendent said, that the community valued its diversity.
That peace was “hard-fought,” Ransom said.
“You come here now and say, oh, it’s a model of people getting along,” said Ransom, a white Lake Oswego native who moved to the Woodburn district in 2002. “That took a while. It’s been decade by decade, generation by generation.”
Over time, a sense of security set in. Some undocumented immigrants said they were able to forget the dark cloud that loomed in the background. If they worked hard, they believed, if they kept a clean record, they could stay in the little paradise they’d made — legally or not.
Others parents soothed themselves with hope for their children. In Mexico, only the wealthy could attend schools. In Woodburn, 88 percent of Latino children graduate high school, the highest rate in Oregon. So many went on to earn degrees that Pacific University and Chemeketa Community College set up outposts downtown.
Melissa Perez, an 18-year-old high school senior, grew up in Woodburn believing anything was possible for her.
Both of her parents are undocumented. They earn such meager incomes that Perez qualifies for a Pell Grant, federal aid for needy students.
“But they want me to go to college,” she said.
She joined the tennis team and the National Honor Society. Her grades in the school’s advanced International Baccalaureate program are high enough to qualify for a full scholarship to Portland State University. She wants to major in biology.
Soon after Trump’s inauguration, Perez and two friends were volunteering at a local food pantry when a lawyer arrived. He told adults in line that Trump planned to deport more people. Undocumented parents needed a plan, he said. They should choose a friend or neighbor, someone with United States citizenship, to take their children if federal agents came.
Eventually, Perez’s parents told her they had made a similar decision.
They waited until her younger siblings went to sleep to unveil their plan. If federal agents deported them, Perez’s parents said, they would take their 5-year-old son with them to Mexico. But they wanted Perez, who was born in Portland, to raise her 13- and 11-year-old siblings.
College might still be possible, they told her. But if they were deported, Perez would have to find a fulltime job to provide for her siblings.
This spring, between tennis matches and study sessions, Perez began learning how to be a parent. Her dad taught her how to open a banking account and balance a checkbook. He showed her how to shop for car and health insurance.
They bought her a new wallet, one big enough to hold her passport. That way, they told her, she would have proof of her citizenship if anyone stopped her.
“You never know,” she said in mid-March over a school lunch she left uneaten. “I’m just becoming an adult.”
The rumors swirled through late winter. Federal agents were waiting outside Walmart, some people wrote on Facebook. They were driving unmarked cars down the highway, others texted friends. Teenagers used Twitter to announce every supposed sighting.
“We started preparing for the raids,” said Ramon Ramirez, the president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, a farmworkers union that formed in the 1970s after a surge in deportations.
“We knew they were coming,” Ramirez said. “We have kids who are preparing for raids. Kids.”
After Trump took office, Ramirez canvassed the town, encouraging people to organize.
Woodburn had long been a town of communal gatherings. Teenagers spend one afternoon a week plotting future political careers. After 12-hour nursery shifts, parents attend “Family University” to learn English and earn their general equivalency degrees. Police officers join farmworkers on local radio shows.
With Ramirez’s help, residents scheduled community meetings every night of the week. Perez and her friends organized a “know your rights” event one Thursday evening in March.
It was the fourth such meeting that week, but a hundred or so Latinos shuffled into the Woodburn High School cafeteria. Many wore Carhartt pants caked with mud from a day’s work. Parents left boxes of pastries uneaten. The stakes were too high for small talk, so most sat silent as they waited for the meeting to beginning.
Perez, 5 feet tall in heels, couldn’t see over the podium, so she stood to the side as she introduced the Portland lawyer and Woodburn police officer who would teach undocumented families what to do if federal agents approached them.
Nearly everyone pulled out a cell phone and recorded the warnings.
That same week, another 20 Latino families crowded inside Stephen Miller’s Affordable Immigration Services, one of two immigration law firms in a Pacific Highway shopping center.
“From the time Trump walked down the escalator and pronounced Mexicans as rapists, my caseload has grown quite a bit,” Miller said. “Especially after he took power, this fear is rampant in our community, and we’re very busy.”
Miller, a balding and bespectacled white man in his 60s, said business was up 40 percent. He saw two clients an hour.
“After Trump became president, I noticed all the women in my office started crying,” Miller said. “It just hurt.”
For the past month, he had volunteered to help undocumented families sign “carta poder” papers, a temporary power-of-attorney designation that gives the recipient the authority over a detained person’s children.
Other attorneys were doing carta poder workshops at community meetings. Miller, a devout Christian, had overseen 300 the week before at a Catholic mass.
Miller doesn’t speak Spanish, so a paralegal who considers herself “200 percent Mexican” translated as families arrived one night.
They breezed through the first session. A couple who said they’d been in Oregon a decade wanted their 19-year-old daughter to care for their other three children.
“Right now, they are scooping people up,” Miller told them. “Don’t hang out with people you know are felons. If you get scooped up in the dragnet, you can end up in removal.”
The second couple dragged in a few minutes later. A 6-year-old girl picked at a pink bow as Miller introduced himself.
The father was a balding 53-year-old with a deep voice and 5 o’clock shadow. He had come to the United States 39 years ago to pick berries.
“Everyone is scared,” Raul said in English. “I used go fishing, to the rivers, but I stopped because I’m nervous. I don’t want to leave my family.”
Raul told Miller he went to work but otherwise hadn’t left the house in three months. He asked his oldest daughter to shop for groceries.
“Just scared,” he said. “Just scared. Just scared.”
Raul told Miller he wanted to assign power-of-attorney to his oldest daughter, a 27-year-old whose own status was tenuous. She lived legally in Oregon as a member of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Adults program, but that program requires a renewal every two years.
“You’re the one doing all the shopping?” Miller asked as the daughter peeked in.
“It started when we found out Trump won,” she said. “Our heart just sunk down. Then my mom started getting more nervous, anxious. Every time she came home from work, she was shaking. I call them six times a day. Are you OK? Where are you working? What time are you coming home?”
Raul ran a calloused hand over his face. His eyes bleared red.
“I need to go back to my normal life,” he said. “The life I lived before.”
Miller started to tell Raul what he told every client, to try to live without fear. But a paralegal knocked. The lobby was crowded. Eighteen other families were waiting.
Downtown, in a strip lined with brick buildings and palm trees, businesses spend most of the day empty.
At Santana’s, a family-owned taqueria next to Pacific University’s campus, service has slowed from 40 tables a day to 20. The made-to-order, $8 taco salads and torta sandwiches come in generous portions, but lunch wasn’t worth the risk, construction workers who used to be regulars said.
Mora, who runs Zapateria El Jalicience, said the customers who do visit come to wire money back to Mexico – a contingency savings plan.”Instead of spending it, they are sending it,” Mora said. “Everyone in general has the fear. So all of us have to adjust. I’m lowering costs and changing things I did a few months ago.”
Brenda Mendoza, the executive director of the Service Center for Farmworkers, said some undocumented residents have stopped going to the doctor. Others worry about sending their children to school. Mendoza is a naturalized citizen but said even her children come home worried that agents might stop them.
“We’ve come to the point where we’re questioning authority in general, authority that two months ago we wouldn’t have been,” Mendoza said. “We’re wondering, is the school going to protect our kids? Is the school going to protect the information it has on the parents who are here undocumented? Are the clinics going to do the same?”
Worst of all, Mendoza said, women have told her they’re too afraid to report when they’ve been raped or abused. Undocumented people are like any people, she said. They want to live in a safe community. They want criminals to go to jail.
Police Chief Jim Ferraris said he worries the raids will handicap his department.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of the Woodburn Police Department,” Ferraris said. “We need people to talk to us. We need people to report crime. It would have a significant impact on the quality of life of our community if the majority of the population quit interacting with police.”
Since the election, Ferraris said he has urged his officers — 15 of whom speak Spanish — to talk with residents as often as possible. He writes regular editorials in the paper and publishes video diaries on Facebook and Twitter. He even launched a bilingual smartphone app to reach homebound residents.
He can’t stop federal agents from coming to town, Ferraris told one meeting, but his department would follow an Oregon law that prevents local departments from helping immigrations officers deport residents.
The audience clapped, he said.
“It was almost emotional,” he said. “You look out in the crowd and you see good people, hardworking people. They were finding some comfort in those words. That’s something I don’t take for granted. We have to go out and earn that trust each and every day. It is becoming more difficult because of the fear that’s out in the community.”
Most days, the rumors are only rumors. But then federal agents did come to town. They did drive unmarked vehicles.
When the red Ford Explorer veered close to Saul Loeza at 6:45 a.m., he thought a drunk driver had swerved his way. Another car — an unremarkable Dodge or Chrysler sedan, he said — pulled close behind. Loeza said the Explorer cut him off. He jerked his car into the grass to avoid crashing.
Three agents questioned him, he said. They believed he was his brother, an undocumented man Loeza said returned to Mexico a decade ago.
“I said, ‘No, I’m Saul,” he said.
Loeza said he handed them his driver’s license, which had expired. They handcuffed his wrists and ankles then chained his waist, he said. He left his small Honda on the side of the road. The agents drove him to Portland.
Around 8 a.m., friends called Loeza’s wife. They told her they had seen Loeza’s car abandoned. She woke up their daughter and asked her to call his boss.
When Saul Loeza first arrived in Oregon, he worked the farming jobs most men do. Woodburn allowed him to turn a blue collar job into something special. For the past 27 years, he has trimmed topiaries.
He’s a stocky man with a calm demeanor and a toothy smile. He has shaped bushes into baseball players and shrubs into stars. His children and his coworkers consider him an artist.
His 20-year-old daughter, Michelle Loeza, dialed the number for the nursery. Her father’s boss told her he hadn’t shown for work.
She drove toward his abandoned car. She searched the ditch for signs of a body.
“I was thinking did my dad get kidnapped?” she said. “Did someone torture my dad and throw his body on the side of the railroad tracks? Negative stuff was coming up to my mind. I didn’t think it was ICE.”
Her family had never had the conversation that is now ubiquitous in Woodburn homes. They had no plan for what to do if the parents were taken.
“I always thought it wasn’t going to happen to my family,” Michelle Loeza said. “My parents don’t have bad records. My brother and I are U.S. citizens.”
Michelle Loeza said she and her siblings — a 19 year old sister and 11-year-old brother — headed to Portland to see their father.
“We thought we were going to hug our dad and touch him,” Michelle Loeza said. “But there was glass that divided us. When my dad walked in, he started crying. He was embarrassed of having his children seeing their dad behind a glass.”
Immigration s officers sent Loeza to the Northwest Detention Center, where he was held for a month. He slept three hours a night, he said, and ate undercooked beans and still-frozen fruit.
Rose Richeson, an ICE spokeswoman in Seattle, said Loeza was taken into custody after agents determined he was previously convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants and providing false information to the police. Loeza’s family said that was 20 years ago. He went to court and paid fees then, they said.
Back in Woodburn, the family struggled without him.
“It’s really rough for my brother,” Michelle Loeza said. “He doesn’t want to go to school. He doesn’t sleep well. He doesn’t eat. He told us he just wanted to die. I can’t believe an 11-year-old is thinking about death. He’s just barely started living.”
Loeza’s detention turned out to be just a foreshock. Two weeks after agents took him into custody, federal immigration officers stopped two vans carrying 19 workers headed to pick an ornamental shrubs.
Federal agents said they were looking for two men with arrest records. They found one of the men and detained 10 others traveling in the vans. Three of the eleven men had criminal convictions, Richeson said.
Most of the men were from Guatemala and told lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union that they had fled civil war a decade ago. Several have small children.
The men will go through deportation removal hearings. They may be deported or they may be allowed to stay.
Ramirez, the farmworker union president, said whatever happens, Woodburn won’t be the same. The raids “sent shockwaves” through the town, Ramirez said. A strong community can’t stand on shaky ground. Woodburn can’t survive as a ghost town much longer.
“Raids like this are tearing apart what holds us together,” Ramirez said.
Loeza left the detention center in mid-March. People, even strangers, brought money and food when he returned, Saul Loeza said. The restaurant owners who were barely breaking even helped him pay for a lawyer and a $9,000 bail. Kids whose parents were worried about their own legal status chipped in online.
Saul Loeza rarely leaves his apartment now. He goes on evening walks with his wife, but he no longer drives or works. His case remains under review.
“I feel traumatized in my mind,” Saul Loeza said.
A few days after his release, Saul Loeza woke up in a panic.
In his dreams, he told his wife, he was still in jail. He wanted to talk to his friends. He tried yelling in the dream, but no one could hear him. Everyone was asleep.
His wife tried to soothe him, but Loeza dreaded falling asleep.
Nightmares were the only dreams he had.
— Casey Parks