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Orcas Island, Washington Rallying to Protect Sawyer from Deportation

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On Orcas Island, Washington state, an entire community is mobilizing to stop the deportation of a skilled mill worker who has been ordered to leave by the end of this month.

Benjamin Nuñez-Marquez is a sawyer who has been living and working on the island for 15 years, who was pulled over in 2008 while driving a sick and widowed neighbor to the hospital.  After a week in detention, Ben was released on bail and ordered deported — a sentence that was postponed for a year because his employers (the owners of a small, family-run sawmill) argued that he was such a skilled worker that they could not find a replacement for him.  It used to take two men to do what Ben now does single-handedly and almost twice as fast.  Few people are willing to relocate to Orcas Island.  And the work is dangerous — Ben himself is missing fingers on one hand as a result.  Because of this and because of Ben’s other contributions to the community, the island is rallying against his deportation, and his employers are pleading that his departure would force the mill to close and hurt the economy of the region.

Stories like Ben’s — and the stories of so many others — once again highlight the Obama Administration’s record rate of deportations.  Though the Administration has repeatedly claimed that it only targets convicted criminals for deportation, a recent New York Times study found that two-thirds of the 2 million immigrants Obama has deported over his tenure are people who have generally done nothing wrong, who would qualify for legislative immigration reform if they were allowed to stay.  The Seattle Times profile on Ben emphasizes the unique skills and personal contributions he brings to his community — yet ICE is saying that his deportation is still on.  How is Ben’s case at all a priority?

Read more about Ben’s case below, or at the Seattle Times here.

People on Orcas Island are uniting around the sole operator of a small family-run sawmill there, saying his scheduled deportation to Mexico this month could force that business closed and harm the region’s economy.

Owners of West Sound Lumber, where Benjamin Nuñez-Marquez has milled native timber for 15 years, have told immigration authorities that in two years of trying they’ve been unable to find anyone to replace him.

Jack Helsell, 90, who designed and built the operation four decades ago, said those with the knowledge and skill to run the mill’s antique circular saw are well into their 70s now and can’t be expected to work that hard.

And his family, Helsell said, can’t afford to upgrade.

“I didn’t realize how rare he was,” Helsell said of his sawyer. “What we found from all the advertising is that nobody could or wanted to do that job.”

The San Juan Builders Association has written the federal government on Nuñez’s behalf, as has the San Juan County Economic Development Council, which said his deportation, “would adversely affect the economy here as well as the livelihood of many Orcas Island business owners and residents.”

Building contractors, who depend on West Sound for much of their custom-milled lumber, have written that its loss would devastate their businesses. In fact, close to 100 residents and businesses on the island, including public officials and former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, have written letters and about 300 of them have signed a petition to keep Nuñez, who is in the country illegally.

Local women have offered to marry the 38-year-old bachelor.

Sen. Patty Murray said that in her 21 years in office, she has never seen this level and intensity of support for a single individual. In addition to a mountain of letters, her office has fielded hundreds of calls. In a rare move, she wrote to the head of the Department of Homeland Security asking for his help.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott also signed that letter.

“Ben is the reason West Sound Lumber Company can stay open,” Murray said in an interview. “He is exactly the type of person we should not be kicking out of this country.”