About two million undocumented migrants in the United States have been deported under President Barack Obama.
The rainforests around Forks, a small town in Washington state, have long attracted hunters and fishermen, but beginning in 2008, this lush, remote landscape acquired a new breed of pursuer and prey.
That year, Border Patrol agents started targeting undocumented Latinos who lived in the town and worked in the woods, collecting mushrooms and salal, a shrub used by florists.
The agents set up roadblocks, tailed vehicles and trekked through the forests, sometimes disguising themselves as hunters, in a tense – and, eventually, lethal – game of cat-and-mouse.
Not all the Latinos living in Forks at the time were undocumented, but dread still gripped much of the community, which represented about a third of Forks’ population of 3,500. To avoid “la migra”, they kept watch for patrols, shopped at night and minimised contact with schools, police or anything official.
On May 14, 2011, a Forest Service officer stopped Benjamin Roldan Salinas and his partner, Crisanta Ramos, in their truck after a day collecting salal. They showed their permit. But minutes later, to their horror, a Border Patrol vehicle arrived.
Ostensibly the agents had come to help translate, but according to activists, it was a familiar case of the Border Patrol using local enforcement agencies as extra sets of eyes and ears.
The couple bolted into the woods. One agent ran down Ramos and handcuffed her. Salinas vanished into the Sol Duc river. Every day for three weeks, neighbours and friends searched for him. On June 5, they found his body, snagged on an object in the river.
“He died in the water. My husband died in the water,” said Ramos, cradling the youngest of her three children and sobbing as she recalled the day. “He ran because he knew what would happen.”
If he had been caught, Roldan Salinas would have been detained with hundreds of other undocumented Latinos, before being sent to Mexico to become one of the estimated two million people deported under Barack Obama.
That two million milestone, which activist groups say was hit in recent weeks, is a figure that far outstrips what was done under previous administrations, and it has stoked anger in the Latino community.
Last year alone, 369,000 undocumented migrants were deported, a nine-fold increase from 20 years ago.
The journey from south to north, a migration which changed the face of the United States, is being reversed. The backward trek begins in the rainy mists of Washington state, passes through detention centres and deportation transports, and ends in the baked concrete of Tijuana.
The flow does not discriminate between people who crossed the border only recently and those who came over decades ago, raised families here and consider themselves American.
Forks, a depressed logging town near the tip of the Olympic peninsula, is an unlikely magnet for Hispanics. A four-hour car and ferry ride from Seattle, bounded on the west by the Pacific, it tends to be cold and wet. Logging’s decline made property cheap, however, and in the 1990s, Mexicans and Guatemalans began moving here to work in the woods.
“They’re good workers. Do the work white people aren’t willing to do anymore,” said Hop Dhooghe, 75, who sells salal and other forest products. “If you didn’t have Latinos here your grocery store wouldn’t have an apple in it.” He has joined an organisation called the Forks Human Rights Group to oppose deportations.
Estanislao Matias, 24, from Guatemala, paid smugglers US$3,500 that he had borrowed – an enormous sum for him – to join siblings here in 2009. “In our imagination we think of the marvels awaiting us,” he said. “That’s why we risk everything to come. Then I saw how hard it was, that I’d be working in rain and hail.”
Worse, he encountered a sense of siege. “It was like a horror movie. People peeking out of windows, afraid to go out.”
Back in 1994, the nationwide force had 4,000 agents. To deter the influx from Mexico, it increased to 8,500 by 2001. After 9/11 it was folded into US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The number of agents in green, who have distinct uniforms and roles from other CBP colleagues, expanded to 23,000, one of the biggest federal forces.
A Senate Bill last year proposed expanding it further, to 40,000.
With this surge, huge resources were directed to the sleepy northern border, and the Border Patrol’s green uniformed agents were sent into rural communities across Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota and New York, where they had seldom been seen before.
“There were Border Patrol vehicles everywhere, following each other around like little herds,” said the mayor, Bryon Monohon. “They were just pulling people off the street.”
A study by the Forks Human Rights Group documented intimidation and harassment in hundreds of encounters.
Roldan Salinas, who drowned, left Ramos, now 30, to bring up three young children. The children are US citizens, and after the tragedy Ramos was granted provisional permission to stay.
The outcry over Roldan Salinas’s death – it made news in Mexico – appeared to chasten the Border Patrol. Intimidation and arrests have dwindled over the past year, said activists.
About half of the Latino community has fled south, beyond the Border Patrol’s reach, draining money and vibrancy from agriculture, trailer parks, schools and stores.
“It’s hurt my business. Most of my workers are gone,” lamented Dhooghe, who now fills just 100 boxes of salal daily, down from 500.
Apart from Ramos, a widow, the biggest losers are the dozens of families who had members – typically male, adult breadwinners – deported, often with no notification to family, said mayor Monohon, who also teaches at the local high school. “We had kids in school saying: ‘Daddy didn’t come home last night’.” – Guardian News & Media