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Catholic Charities says layoffs in Brewster demonstrate the need for immigration reform

When Catholic Charities staff in Spokane heard in early January from a deacon candidate at Sacred Heart Parish in Brewster about the needs arising because 550 employees were laid off at one orchard, Scott Cooper, director of Parish Social Services said he worked with others in the diocese and Catholic Charities to respond.

Greg Cunningham and Scott Cooper
Greg Cunningham and Scott Cooper

He and Greg Cunningham, director of the Refugee and Immigration Program, went there Jan. 26 to learn about the needs.  Then they and Rob McCann, Catholic Charities Spokane director, mobilized the diocese’s response.

“About 17 percent of all the apples in the United States go through the packing houses in Brewster,” said Scott.

They learned that the orchardist needed to hire people to prune trees in March. 

Given that Gebbers is the largest orchardist and packinghouse in the Okanogan, Catholic Charities knew the effects would be broader than those workers, one orchard and one community.

By the end of March, most of the workers were rehired.

The diocese’s response had three elements:

First, they helped meet the initial needs of people.  Rob authorized a grant of $10,000.  Another $4,000 came from the Catholic Charities’ Okanogan Emergency Assistance Fund.  The bishop and diocese appealed to parishes for donations of foods, clothing, diapers, toys and cash.

Catholic Charities’ donations for people’s needs went through Sacred Heart parish and through the food bank at St. James Episcopal Church. 

Second, they expanded efforts to help people gain legal status. 

Third, they consider it a tangible example of the need for immigration reform.

Greg’s job includes helping people gain legal status.  He already goes each month to Okanogan or Brewster to meet with immigrants to help them apply for visas and permanent residency working toward citizenship.  He also helps women at Okanogan’s domestic violence shelter, who endure abuse because they are dependent on their abuser for their immigration status.

“Many people have lived here for years—three generations—and have family members buried in the cemetery,” said Scott. 

“The first generation was migrant and moved with seasonal work, but Brewster has more long-term jobs with pruning and packing houses,” he explained.  “Many in the second generation were born here, but some had crossed the border as children.  The third generation were born here and are students in elementary, junior and senior high schools.”

Under the U.S. family reunification program for immigrants, it takes about 15 years for a Mexican brother or sister to gain legal status, about five years for a spouse or minor child in some cases, and 12 years for a child over 21.  Some filed 14 years ago and have a year to wait.

Most Mexican families come and stay together rather than living separated while waiting.

“How long would anyone want to wait separated from their families?” Scott asked.

While ICE may consider challenging employers “more humanitarian” than raiding fields to pick up and deport people, Greg said both disrupt families, the community and the economy.

When Brewster’s largest employer laid off employees, the “rug was pulled out from under their families,” Greg said.  “There is no safety net for them—no unemployment or food stamps, because they are undocumented and can’t apply for those services.”

Scott said only a few single men returned to Mexico.  A few moved to other parts of the state or country.  Most stayed and waited.  Some found day labor for cash.

“ICE’s pressure on employers to cut the market for undocumented workers did not address the reality of the labor market, that no one else is available, willing or has the skills to do the work,” he said.  “Despite 10 percent unemployment, no white Americans showed up to take the jobs.”

Greg then countered the assumption that undocumented workers receive benefits from tax-supported programs.

“In fact, they pay into the public social safety net by having taxes, Social Security and Medicare withheld, but they cannot access unemployment, Social Security or other benefits if their documents are false.  The employer pays into the system assuming the Social Security number is accurate.”

Brewster’s experience demonstrates the need for immigration reform, Scott pointed out.

“What is accomplished by spending tax dollars for ICE to come into a community and throw self-sufficient households into temporary crisis?” he asked.

“Now that Brewster has weathered this storm, we have impetus for immigration reform, despite the lack of political will nationally,” said Greg.

He summarized five areas the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops believe need to be addressed by immigration reform:

1) Poverty drives people to leave their homelands, so immigration reform needs to address the causes of global poverty.

2) The limited number of visas for reunifying families needs to be lifted to eliminate the backlog in processing.

3) A temporary guest worker program would meet the need for seasonal workers.  Increased border security has meant more who come to the United States stay, so more are here illegally.

4) A path for more immigrants to gain legal status would allow more to settle and work toward citizenship.

5) Restoring due process in law enforcement would stop police from asking people—without cause—for IDs.  Few who are here illegally know that, without due cause,  they do not need to reveal their status or waive their right to a hearing.

Greg said that some people may want to stop the growth in the Hispanic population, but that growth is inevitable.

For information, call 358-4273 or email