For One Oregon City, the American Dream Turns Into a Deportation Nightmare
Many residents of Woodburn, Ore., are living in fear of new deportation efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Sixty percent of the city’s population of 25,000 is Latino. Nearly half of them have trouble speaking English and more than a quarter are undocumented. According to The Oregonian, Woodburn has turned into a “ghost town” since a raid in February in which 11 men were detained.
The city is part of the Willamette Valley, an agricultural region where workers harvest strawberries, hops and wine grapes. Latinos first came to the area in the 1940s as migrant guest workers. By the 1980s, year-round harvesters were commonplace, and federal immigration reform allowed workers to bring in their families and apply for citizenship. Many of these workers, some of whom left Mexico to escape violence, began picking berries for $15,000 a year. After many years and a growing economy, new families and communities bore fruit.
But now, “We have kids who are preparing for raids. Kids,” says Ramon Ramirez, president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, a farmworkers union. Eighty percent of the students in Woodburn are Latino, and 88 percent of them graduate from high school. The town, which used to have the state’s lowest Latino high school graduation rate, now has the highest rate in a state with an average graduation rate of 74 percent.
One of those students is Melissa Perez. The Oregonian reports:
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 full-time 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.”
On Feb. 9, Saul Loeza, a father of three, was arrested in Woodburn by three agents who drove unmarked cars. When they pulled him over, he handed over his expired driver’s license. The agents chained him from wrist to ankles and around the waist before driving him to Portland.
Loeza spent a month in the Northwest Detention Center, where he told The Oregonian he slept three hours a night and ate undercooked beans and still-frozen fruit. Seattle ICE spokeswoman Rose Richeson said he was taken in because of a previous conviction for driving under the influence of intoxicants and providing police with false information.
His family told a KGW news reporter that the incident occurred 20 years ago and that he went to court and paid his fees at the time. Loeza has lived in Oregon for 27 years and, according to his family, has continually paid his taxes since entering the country.
Two weeks after he was taken in, 10 other immigrants were arrested in Woodburn. Local businesses have since suffered, because many in the city are too afraid to leave their homes. Others are sending their money to their countries of origin in case they too are deported.
In March, a sweep in Portland resulted in the arrest of 84 undocumented immigrants. According to ICE, 60 of those arrested had criminal histories. One had been previously charged with child rape, although most of the convictions were not for violent offenses. Twenty-four of those arrested had no criminal history.
According to KGW, 2 million people were deported during Barack Obama’s presidency. Today, an estimated 130,000 undocumented immigrants live in Oregon. More than 16 million people in the U.S. share a household with at least one undocumented immigrant.