LONG BEACH — By afternoon on a late April day, fear and panic rippled throughout Pacific County's Latino community.
Entire families — some here illegally — went into hiding for days, halting work at area oyster farms, canneries, tree farms and other businesses.
It started minutes after U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials arrested 16 illegal Latino immigrants — nine men, six women and one young man — on April 25 from boats at the Port of Chinook and from Bell Buoy Crab Co. in Chinook.
The ensuing chaos and work absenteeism highlighted the importance of thousands of Latino immigrants to the Pacific County economy — and sheds light on the national debate about immigration policy.
"(Latinos) are helping to support and maintain the Oregon/Washington economy here," said Patricia Morrissey, a member of the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council, which assists Latinos in Pacific and Clatsop counties. "There has to be some regulation on the border, but you can't ignore this group of people maintaining our economy."
Cranguyma cranberry farm employees Lupe and Eugenio said family members of the people arrested in the April 25 ICE sweep spawned a massive phone tree that reached them at work.
The two men — who immigrated from Mexico about five years ago and have documentation to get a job here — were among the scores of Latino men and women who abandoned their jobs in lieu of the safety of home for the next four to seven days.
"We didn't want to leave work," Eugenio said in Spanish on Monday while weeding a cranberry bog, "but we had to. We were afraid."
They said friends and family didn't buy groceries, get the mail or even look out the windows. "Undocumented or documented, it was about community and being there for each other," Eugenio said.
Even though these families have documents, resident cards and birth certificates, they were scared, said Fernando Rodriguez, a Lower Columbia Hispanic Council member.
Rodriguez said few in the Latino community slept the night of the arrests.
"It took a couple of days to get back to normal, but some families were still in hiding," he said. It's part of the culture, it's hard to explain to Anglos, Rodriguez said.
The Latino work force
Latinos who went into hiding shut down or slowed operations in area the canneries, motels, restaurants, cranberry farms, oyster farms and own stores, according to members of the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council.
"These jobs (Latinos take) are the ones that are hard to fill," said Norma Hernandez, office manager at Goose Point Oysters in Bay Center on the east shore of Willapa Bay. "They are tough, back-breaking jobs."
Hernandez, a member of the Hispanic council, said she has not had an Anglo applicant for a job opening during the past three years.
"The jobs are posted in the newspaper and throughout town, just like any other job," said Hernandez, who helps manage more than 50 people employees at Goose Point. "Other industries in the area are reporting a similar lack of Anglo applicants."
The documented Latino population in Pacific County was about 1,060 in 2004 — about 5 percent of the county's 21,200 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the number of workers in the county illegally may be just as large, said Rodriguez, though there are no official estimates of the county's number of undocumented workers.
Deporting all the illegal workers — as a proposal in the U.S. House would require — would force some Lower Columbia business to close, Hispanic council member Martin Montes Del Porte said.
Most people overlook the benefits and focus on the negative stereotypes associated with illegal immigrants, adds Uriel Iniguez, director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
"These people buy groceries, cars and homes. They shop locally, they can't go elsewhere," Iniguez said. "But there is no easy solution to (the immigration debate)."
Latinos want to work, Iniguez said. "They will work legally or illegally. We created this system, which benefits businesses and we benefit from their labor," he said.
Lupe and Eugenio said that people in their homeland will take the risk to work here illegally — despite discrimination and negative stereotypes.
"With the economy in Mexico, it's impossible to make money there," Lupe said. "You can put walls up and people will still be coming here. It's a necessity, unless the Mexican economy gets better."
Why wouldn't Americans want the Latino workforce in Pacific County? he asks.
"People come here and try to be good citizens, not get in trouble with the law, shop at local stores," Lupe said. "And then, out of the blue, you get taken away. Why, when you come back, should you contribute?"