Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Washington: Moms not criminals

No one in the trailer park would have opened their door if I’d been there on my own. People were clearly afraid, so they were either long gone or laying low. After all that had happened, opening their door to one more gabacho wasn’t a great idea. Fortunately I had a Latina with me from the community, someone almost everyone knew, and she leaned up against the flimsy front doors, some of them hastily repaired after being broken down by federal agents, and announced who she was through the door, telling those inside not to be afraid of the pale guy standing behind her.

I went to Ellensburg, Washington, after agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with FBI and local law enforcement personnel, busted 30 local residents on January 20. Some were charged with using false documents, and others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and were arrested for being in the U.S. illegally. I wrote a story about it, focusing on the role played by a local United Methodist congregation in the aftermath of the arrests. Indeed, all the town’s faith communities stepped up to the plate. Here is Shalom Agtarap, the United Methodist pastor, and Mary Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, at a vigil for the families held at the post office–evidently the only federal building in Ellensburg and thus the venue for their ire.

The Rev. Shalom Agtarap (left), pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, Washington, participates in an ecumenical vigil on January 23, 2011, in support of dozens of local residents arrested for immigration-related violations by federal agents and local law enforcement officials on January 20, 2011. Churches in Ellensburg, a university town east of the Cascade Mountains, formed the nucleus of a local group organized to support the affected families. On the right is the Rev. Mary Johnson, a Lutheran pastor. The vigil took place at the local post office, the only federal building in Ellensburg.

The enforcement action was a big operation, with at least one helicopter and dozens of agents from several agencies. Some police nerd worked overtime to block the landlines in at least one of the three trailer parks where most of the arrests were made. It was quite a big production for such as heinous crime as the use of fake documents. When Jenna Bush was arrested for using a false license to purchase booze, did federal agents show up with guns drawn and a battering rams to knock down the front door of the White House?

Nope. Which makes me wonder why they picked Ellensburg. There’s no history of such arrests there. The Hispanic population is relatively small. Seems like if you want to go fishing for real criminals, you’d have better success in nearby Yakima or Toppenish or several other communities. When I asked Lorie Dankers, the ICE spokewoman in Seattle, about this, she played defense: “Ellensburg is in the United States, and we’re a federal law enforcement agency, and we do targeted criminal investigations, and we go where the leads take us.”

Shalom Agtarap, the United Methodist pastor in Ellensburg, was a bit more convincing with her doubts. “It’s an easy win for them here. It’s a small town, they can come and do it quickly. The Hispanic population isn’t too spread out, so they’re an easy target.” Agtarap suggests that ICE’s “secure communities” program, which seeks to use biometric data to identify aliens, could benefit from a catch and release program, tagging people to get them in the system. Some of the women arrested–it was mostly women, who for the most part had worked as housekeepers at the Quality Inn and two other hotels in Ellensburg–have already been released. But they’re in the system.

I interviewed several people, both in the trailer parks as well as some folks who had taken refuge in one of the churches in town. I met some children who missed one or both of their parents. One three-year old boy had been told his mom had gone off to arreglar unos papeles. He kept asking the people taking care of him when she’s going to get her papers arranged and return home. His frustration finally surfaced when he told his caretakers: “I don’t know why she’s taking so long to arrange those stupid papers.”

I heard several accounts of what happened when the arrests took place, and, as is normal, sometimes there was some exaggeration and sometimes the accounts conflicted. But there was an unsettling repetition of accounts that agents pointed guns at children, at times toward their faces. This isn’t unheard of; we all remember the photographer in the closet who captured the image of Elian Gonzalez when the federal agent entered the bedroom where he was being held. So I asked Dankers about this. I quoted her in the UMNS piece stating, “When we enter to serve a federal search warrant, our agents are armed, [but] at no time was a gun pointed at a child’s face.” Dankers, who was not present during the arrests, suggested the real problem was caused by heartless and stupid immigrant parents, “people who bring their children out into the living room when a federal criminal search warrant is being served.” She gets the Global Lens Blame the Victim Award for January.

Tomasa Pearson, a volunteer with a local food bank whose sister was grabbed, raised some good questions about the context of the arrests.

In many cases they entered people’s homes without permission, grabbed the people inside and handcuffed them, taking them outside into the cold. It’s inhumane, but they don’t care. They didn’t show the search warrants, and they searched the houses but didn’t say why. I went in one woman’s house afterward, and they had dumped everything out, even the cereal from the boxes. These aren’t criminals, so why are they so arrogant? They’re grabbing everyone, people who haven’t done anything, people whose only crime is being Mexican or undocumented. They just want to grab people, and don’t worry if they leave children behind without parents.

Can’t they see how with our work we are helping to lift this country up? I don’t see any Americans out working in the fields. But you can see Americans at the stop lights in Yakima begging for money. Why don’t they go work in the fields like us? Our young and old work for a living in the fields, helping this country, paying taxes. If we break the law, if we sell drugs, then by all means arrest us. But why arrest nursing mothers and take them away from their children, when their only sin is work to improve the life of their family? Why chase after them with so much rancor?

It’s a good question.

I realize immigration is one of those issues that gets some people all hot and bothered. I’m one of them, since all those years in Central America gave me a feel for what immigration looks like from the other side. Thus I was impressed with the calm and peacefulness with which Agtarap and the church folks in Ellensburg responded. Some even admitted they had mixed feelings about the politics of immigration, but when it came to their neighbors being busted, or the parents of their kids’ friends, then politics took a back seat to neighborliness.

Going to Ellensburg wasn’t a big photo op, given that no one wanted to be named, much less have their photo taken. It would have been nice if ICE had let me know ahead of time about the raid (or sweep, or enforcement action–take your pick for what to call it). But after what I’ve written here, I guess I won’t be invited to the next one. Fortunately, there was a group of Ellensburg high school youth who provided an opportunity for better images when they came to Yakima on January 25 to hold a vigil outside the courthouse where some of the arrested were having hearings. Some of the kids had parents or siblings inside. Alejandro Zepeda was also there, with his four-month old daughter Alondra, wondering what was going to happen to his wife. A big muscular guy, he was on the verge of crying. And the Sign of the Day Award goes to “Moms not criminals.” That sort of sums up what we’ve become as a nation, at least on those days when we let loose the lesser angels of our fear and xenophobia.

As long as we’re on the topic of immigrants in Washington State, response will soon carry a story I did about Tacoma Community House, a national mission institution which just celebrated 100 years of working with refugees and immigrants in the Puget Sound area. That’s a century in which the demographics of migration have changed repeatedly, from the Italian newcomers when TCH was founded to the Asians of the post-Vietnam War era to the Eastern Europeans of today. Through it all TCH has been teaching English, finding immigrants work, and helping them become full stakeholders in the American Dream. Here are some images from that shoot, including some of immigrants in their respective workplaces, and a bunch of images of a TCH-sponsored cooking class, where immigrant men (men!) learn about how to cook using the strange foods available in their new home. I share these to remind us that immigrants come in all flavors. What they have in common is a shared desire to work hard and succeed.


I’m back home for a few days, and I confess I’m feeling old. Maybe because when I looked at my receipt for lunch from a Burger King in Yakima, one of the items was a “Senior Coke.” Or it could be the result of hanging around for a couple of days with twenty-something people like Shalom Agtarap who are competent, calm, and very astute in their analysis. At one point in Ellensburg I was walking along with Shalom, talking with her about something, maybe the role of pastor as activist, and I asked if she knew about Lyda’s stint in jail back in the 80s, when she got ten days in the county jail for trying to make a citizen’s arrest of a train carrying nuclear weapons components. Shalom didn’t know the story, so I started with relish to tell the tale, including of how Bishop Talbert came to her trial but wasn’t allowed to say much during his testimony because the judge wouldn’t allow any talk of conscience or morality or . . . and I looked over at Shalom while I’m talking and I could see in her eyes a look that I must have had when I was her age and encountered those old Fellowship of Reconciliation types with their stories about resisting back in the day. She was patient and polite, not to worry, but she had that look of affectionate forbearance that I think we keep ready for those occasions when old farts start reminiscing. . .

I got the same look from the regional organizer for the United Farm Workers, another youngin who came to town to help the community organize in response. When we met I just happened to mention that I once worked with the union in Salinas, back in the day (probably before he was born), and I started to enter the Old Fart Telling Stories Mode, at which point he politely remembered he had something else to do.

Maybe it’s time for me to pick out a rocking chair.

The good news, however, is clear: Although the powers and principalities of this dark age are pretty much the same as in my own dark age, people like Shalom and others in Ellensburg leave me less worried about the future. La lucha sigue.

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