Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

U.S. Immigrations action puts hundreds out of work in Brewster area

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 4, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Last June, Gebbers Farms, in Brewster, Wash., received a letter from U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“My understanding,” said Greg Cunningham, director of Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services, “is that the letter said that there are discrepancies between these people’s names and their Social Security numbers, and we need you to figure out what’s going on. My understanding from talking to the folks up in Brewster is that the company called a meeting at the end of the day on Monday, Dec. 28, and they said, ‘This is a list of people, and these are their Social Security numbers. The government says there are some problems here. You have this amount of time to show otherwise.’

“What I heard,” Cunningham continued, “was that anybody who felt that there was an error had an opportunity to square it away with the company. My understanding is that, of the 400 or so people affected, about 15 were able to show that they had the proper authority to be working legally in the United States.”

On Tuesday, Jan.26, Cunningham and Scott Cooper, Catholic Charities’ Director of Parish Social Ministry, drove north to Brewster. According to Cunningham, the previous Sunday, Father Gustavo Ruiz, pastor of Brewster’s Sacred Heart Parish, “had made an announcement at Mass that I was coming. We arrived from Okanogan, where we had spent the morning, at about 3:30 p.m., and I had appointments set up throughout the afternoon. The plan was for Scott and me to meet at 7 p.m. with Father Gus” and lay leaders of the parish. “We came over the rise and off the main drag, and the church parking lot was filled with cars, and people were milling about in the parking lot. Father Gus met us as we got out of the car, took us into the church, and it was three-quarters full – Scott and I estimate 150-200 people were in the pews waiting for us to talk. It was quite moving, and Scott commented that those were the ones who had the courage to come out into the open.”

Cunningham explained that he had clients to see, but Father Ruiz had printed up an intake form for people to fill out with names, contact information, and other data that would help Catholic Charities get a grasp on the circumstances of the people attending the meeting.

Cunningham announced that he couldn’t see them right away, but that he would be back on Feb. 5 “to do a sort of triage to figure out if there may be some people who are eligible for immigration benefits that we can help with. We’re not talking about monetary benefits here; rather, some of these people may be eligible to become permanent residents, and from talking to people both Father Gus and Scott got the impression that this may definitely be the case for some.”

Efforts are being made to obtain and provide temporary financial assistance. Following the meeting in the parish church, Cooper met with Father Ruiz and lay leaders to set up a voucher program, which one of the laity offered to operate it out of his home. Cunningham said that Catholic Charities Spokane has budgeted $4,000 for financial assistance for Okanogan County. Catholic Charities’ director, Dr. Rob McCann, has requested $10,000 from Catholic Charities USA and is very optimistic about being able to obtain these funds. In addition, Catholic Charities’ Childbirth and Parenting Alone (CAPA) program donated a 33-gallon trash bag full of diapers, with a promise of more.

The biggest concern, however, is housing, because Gebbers Farms provides some migrant housing for workers, but the company had to tell single people that they had to vacate within 30 days, and families that they had to vacate within 90 days.

“Some single people have gone back to Mexico,” Cunningham said, “and other people have gone to other parts of the country. Some single men will move in with extended family members. Families have more time to figure out what to do. Some just can’t afford to go anyplace else. Some people have started working for really small farms and are being paid ‘under the table.’ And I just heard that this same situation is happening up in Oroville, too, but I don’t have the details yet.”

In a situation like this, said Cooper, “the punitive burden falls on the employer, and potentially the employer is subject to about a $10,000 per case fine. So I don’t think that we blame Gebbers Farms for letting all those folks go.”

All the same, nearly 400 people in the Brewster area are now out of work. Cunningham said that Catholic Charities has been in touch with the Catholic Immigration League Network and the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Migration and Refugee Services to try to learn what else Catholic Charities Spokane can do to help these people.

There seems to be no specific reason that the letter was sent to Gebbers Farms, Cunningham said, “except that it’s part of national security.” Arguably, “it’s part of the Obama administration’s ‘kinder and gentler’ raids, if you will.” Although people are not being detained and deported, as happened during the Bush administration, “they don’t have jobs now. Obviously, this affects the entire community. Brewster’s not that big a community, and to have 400 people thrown out of work is substantial.”

One of the people affected by this action, Cooper said, “who is now out of work, is presently in the diocese’s deacon formation program, so we’re talking about a diaconal candidate, currently in formation. These are the people who make up the parish community in Brewster, or about 85 percent of it.”

This, said Cunningham, “is why we need immigration reform. If I were to get on a soapbox, I would say that clearly there is something that’s not working here. I don’t know the demographics of the people affected. I don’t know how long they’ve been in this country, what brought them here, how many children they have, or if those children are U.S. citizens or undocumented themselves. I don’t know the needs of the employer. Obviously, (the company’s) hand was forced, at some level, to confront this issue. But nobody is winning right now. Everybody is paying a price for a bad law, as far as I’m concerned.”

Cooper said that, in his opinion, the U.S. has brought this problem upon itself. “These people used to be genuinely migrant,” he said, “but we’ve made it so they can’t do that anymore. Once they’re in the country they don’t leave because we’ve made it so they can’t get back in if they leave. So they stay because they would rather work and feed their children, strangely enough. So now they stay, and they’re much more established in their community, and they have much more to lose by packing up and leaving suddenly and going to the Yakima Valley, or this place or that place, in search of more work.”

All this is more than ironic in light of the fact that Gebbers Farms is still owned and operated by the family with immigrant roots that began the business more than 100 years ago.

Hispanic laborers have been working for Gebbers Farms since 1941.


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