Northwest forests sprout crop of illegal aliens. Unscrupulous firms using illegals to win US contracts
Washington — Illegal aliens, mostly from Mexico, are usurping hundreds of jobs funded by the United States government on federal forest lands in the Pacific Northwest. A number of sources, including several federal officials, confirm renewed complaints from US workers about severe competition from undocumented workers in Oregon, Washington, and northern California.
More than 90 percent of the illegal aliens taking forest jobs in the Northwest are from Mexico, with the remainder from Central America, according to US Border Patrol agents.
Eugene Davis, chief of the Border Patrol field office in Bellingham, Wash., says his five-man team has arrested 168 illegal aliens holding jobs in federal forests in western Washington during the past year. Those aliens, he says, were just ``the tip of the iceberg.'' The problem is equally severe in adjoining states.
Gerry Mackie, president of the Northwest Forest Workers Association, complains that unscrupulous American contractors are using illegals to underbid US workers for government contract jobs throughout the region.
Many of the jobs being lost to illegals are in the reforesting industry. Reforestry work includes planting seedlings, thinning, and cultivating. It is strenuous labor that in the past has paid workers about $8 to $10 an hour. There are about 15,000 reforestry jobs in the US, and about half of those are in the Northwest.
Vast areas of Western forest are run by the US Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM, part of the Department of Interior).
Both federal agencies contract reforestry work to private operators on a strict, low-bid basis.
Contractors are supposed to pay a minimum wage of about $7.50 an hour, provide workmen's insurance, and meet other standards. But Border Patrol investigations have turned up contractors who have paid aliens as little as $2 an hour. Insurance coverage, which is extremely costly for forest workers, is sometimes dodged, officials say.
By using illegal workers, who are in no position to complain about working conditions or pay, contractors can underbid companies that pay the required wages.
Mr. Mackie says the impact of undocumented aliens has been devastating on US workers in Oregon, where his association is based. Its membership has plunged from 1,200 workers in 1982 to only 200 in 1984. Unless something is done, Mackie says, the association will be out of business by the end of next year.
Mr. Davis of the Border Patrol says the competition from aliens has come at a difficult time. ``The timber industry is really hard pressed right now, and there are a lot of people out of work.''
In Skamania County, Wash., for example, the local unemployment rate stood at 33 percent this year when Davis's agents raided work sites in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania. The agents caught 46 illegals working under a federal contract there. Another 25 escaped into the woods.
The irony is that US funds are used to pay the illegals. Private timber firms do a much better job of screening out illegal workers from their forests, Mackie says.
Pat Morris, an official with the US Forest Service, concedes there is a serious problem in the Northwest. ``We have a lot of difficulty when the contractors hire illegal aliens. It's something we would like to have a better mechanism to deal with.''
Mr. Morris says that responsibility for enforcement is scattered among many agencies. The Forest Service is charged with planting trees, not arresting illegals. That's the job of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Nor is the Forest Service responsible for enforcing US wage laws. That's the job of the Department of Labor. Insurance coverage is a state responsibility.
But Morris says if the Forest Service thinks it sees a problem, such as a truckload of illegals pulling up to a work site, it will contact the INS. Indeed, cooperation by the Forest Service has been ``excellent,'' says Davis of the Border Patrol. But many aliens still go undetected.
Another factor that complicates enforcement is that the Forest Service and the BLM are required, with very few exceptions, to accept the lowest bid.
Mackie says his employee association was underbid 44 straight times in one area of Oregon, and in many instances it was because it was bidding against contractors who use illegals, he claims. Even when federal officials suspect a contractor might use illegals, they still must accept that contractor's low bid.
``It's hard on the legal ones,'' says Davis. ``We get lots of calls from local contractors,'' who complain about alien competition.
One strong bit of evidence that aliens are being widely used is the current level of bidding. Says Davis:
``Last year, a lot of the contracts being awarded were bid 30 to 40 percent less than 10 years ago.''
Mackie accuses federal officials of indifference to US workers' plight. He says the US is delighted with the level of bids coming in. Alien labor is saving government agencies as much as $50 million a year, he claims.
Ed Ciliberti, an official with the BLM in Oregon, concedes that his agency's mandate is to ``get as many trees into the ground as cheaply as possible.''
But Mr. Ciliberti denies that the BLM is ignoring the problem. In fact, he notes that the BLM ``has an arrangement with the State of Oregon that our contractors be licensed with the state for that purpose. So Oregon exercises some review over that individual. We've also taken pains to train our contract inspectors . . . to look for signs that would tell you the crew is alien.''
There have been estimates that in some areas 80 percent of the crews planting and thinning trees are in the US illegally, though some US officials say they doubt it has reached that level.
Investigative reporters out West have turned up incidents of abuse, low pay, and squalid living conditions. Nor is such abuse something new. In 1980, for example, the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Ore., ran a series of articles on illegal migrants. In an isolated labor camp near Mt. Ranier, for example, Mexican forest workers were charged $25 for a jar of peanut butter, bread, canned beans, and a jar of Tang, the Statesman-Journal reported. Just getting a shower could cost $5 to $20. By the time such dedu ctions were taken from the workers' pay, little was left. And they were paid in cash, apparently to avoid federal and state revenue agents.
Ciliberti of the BLM calls the whole problem ``extraordinarily complex.'' It's all tied in with the broader crisis involving US immigration, he says. Davis, Mackie, Morris, and Ciliberti all pointed to immigration reform, now pending in Congress, as a potential solution.
The Senate and House bills both would make it illegal for employers ``knowingly'' to hire an undocumented alien. Stiff penalties could result from each violation.
Such a law would quickly bring things under control, Davis suggests.
One contractor in the Northwest, for example, has been cited over and over for hiring illegals. In some instances, it's the same aliens being arrested again and again with the same employer, so there's ``no doubt'' the contractors know they are hiring illegals, says Davis.
All this is dealing a double blow to the Northwest's economy, Davis observes. First, US workers can't get jobs. Second, much of the money the aliens make is sent back to Mexico, so it doesn't benefit local people.
Nor are the aliens necessarily helped. Some contractors fail to carry the proper workmen's insurance, officials say. So when the alien workers are hurt, ``the contractors just bring them into town and drop them off,'' Davis says. The alien is left to fend for himself.