The residents of a mobile home park on the outskirts of Ellensburg received a rude awakening early last Thursday morning. A police helicopter hovered above their homes, shining a searchlight through their windows. Squad cars blocked the entrance and exit to the community, which is home to a large percentage of the city's Hispanic population, and dozens of agents from local law-enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement eventually rounded up 30 people. Now, four days later, Ellensburg residents say that not only did the arrests cause widespread panic and outrage in the city's Hispanic community, they briefly crippled parts of the local economy that rely heavily on migrant workers.
Details about who was arrested and why are still vague. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office of Eastern Washington hasn't returned a call seeking comment on the investigation. According to the Ellensburg Daily Record, a total of 30 people were taken into custody after federal agents served 11 search warrants at 22 locations. Thirteen are charged with visa fraud and government identity fraud. The rest appear to be bystanders who were detained for "administrative immigration violations."
The Daily Record also has a report on the impact on local schools, where several students were absent or pulled abruptly from class by frightened parents.
Phillip Garrison, the director of APOYO, a food bank that offers aid to the needy among Ellensburg's Hispanic community, says the raid has sent many families into hiding.
"The trailer courts look like ghost towns," Garrison says.. "There's nobody there. The question is if people have been picked up, or fled or if they're hiding in their houses. People from there say 'I know everyone and they know everyone but they're still not opening their doors."
Garrison estimates that Ellensburg is home to approximately 2,000 immigrants, virtually all of whom hail from Mexico. He says they come to the city for seasonal jobs harvesting cherries, apples and potatoes, to work in hotels and to work year-round in the city's hay-packing plants.
"It highlights what everybody likes to try to ignore in this immigration thing," says Mark Anderson, the owner of Anderson Hay and Grain in Ellensburg. "Ultimately, if we're going to be a country that's manufacturing and exporting and doing everything we're trying to accomplish to bring the economy around, we have to manage workforces and ensure labor forces are available."
This is the first time that Garrison can recall an immigration sweep taking place in the city.
"People were pulled out of their homes and handcuffed," Garrison says. "I heard various ugly stories about teenagers standing out in the snow in handcuffs forbidden to move. After about two hours they loaded everyone in ICE vans and took them away."
In Seattle, Hilda Magaña, director of child development at El Centro de la Raza, condemned the raids and said her organization would help defend the rights of the detainees in court.
"For the most part, they are not criminals," Magaña says. "They are just people who want to have families and support their families. This is why we need comprehensive immigration reform with a clear path to citizenship. These are working people, they are not the criminals they are portrayed to be."
Garrison says he has contacted the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project on behalf of some of the arrested individuals, but in the short term he is focused on providing humanitarian aid to families that have been impacted by the raids.
"Our task right now is to take care of these kids and to safeguard these people's property," Garrison says. "We've already received reports of -- I wouldn't call them looters -- but unwholesome elements are going through the trailer parks and trying the doors......The thing to emphasize is these people were making it, they weren't on welfare. Now various people have left their jobs so if they decide to stay we'll be hunting for new jobs for them and providing food and clothing."