From New York Times:
With Illegal Immigrants Fighting Wildfires, West Faces a Dilemma
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: May 28, 2006
SALEM, Ore. — The debate over immigration, which has filtered into almost every corner of American life in recent months, is now sweeping through the woods, and the implications could be immense for the upcoming fire season in the West.
As many as half of the roughly 5,000 private firefighters based in the Pacific Northwest and contracted by state and federal governments to fight forest fires are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. And an untold number of them are working here illegally.
A recent report by the inspector general for the United States Forest Service said illegal immigrants had been fighting fires for several years. The Forest Service said in response that it would work with immigration and customs enforcement officers and the Social Security Administration to improve the process of identifying violators.
At the same time, the State of Oregon, which administers private fire contracts for the Forest Service, imposed tougher rules on companies that employ firefighters, including a requirement that firefighting crew leaders have a working command of English and a formal business location where crew members can assemble.
Some Hispanic contractors say the state and federal changes could cause many immigrants, even those here legally, to stay away from the jobs. Other forestry workers say that firefighting may simply be too important — and too difficult to attract other applicants — to allow for a crackdown on illegal workers.
"I don't think it's in anybody's interest, including the Forest Service, to enforce immigration — they're benefiting from it," said Blanca Escobeda, owner of 3B's Forestry in Medford, Ore., which fields two 20-person fire crews. Ms. Escobeda said all of her workers were legal.
Some fire company owners estimate that 10 percent of the firefighting crews are illegal immigrants; government officials will not even hazard a guess.
The private contract crews can be dispatched anywhere in the country through the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho — and in recent years have fought fires from Montana to Utah and Colorado, as well as Washington and Oregon — anywhere that fires get too big or too numerous for local entities to handle.
The work, which pays $10 to $15 an hour, is among the most demanding and dangerous in the West. A workweek fighting a big fire can go 100 hours.
"You've got to be physically able and mentally able," said Javier Orozco, 21, who has fought fires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, California and Montana since 2002.
The plight of the fire companies underscores the surprising directions that the debate over immigration can lead, like government-required bilingualism to ensure everyone on a fire line can understand one another, while threatening to scare away needed workers.
Serafin Garcia, who came from Mexico as a farmworker in the mid-1980's and started a fire company in Salem, which is just south of Portland, in 2001, said the new rules could ruin him. Not only is he likely to lose workers, but some industry officials suggest that larger fire companies, which tend to be owned by non-Hispanics, could crush smaller competitors like Mr. Garcia, using immigration and safety concerns as a smokescreen.
"I'm right on the edge this year, and may be out of business," Mr. Garcia said. Oregon state fire officials say the rule changes have nothing to do with immigration at all — nor, they say, is there any effort to shift the business away from Hispanic entrepreneurs.
"It's an unfortunate coincidence," said Bill Lafferty, director of the Protection From Fire Program for Oregon's Department of Forestry. "All we want as a government is a good, productive, safe work force."
Mr. Lafferty said the industry grew too fast to be well regulated, especially during and after the bad wildfire seasons in 2000 and 2002. Between 1999 and 2003 alone, according to state figures, the number of contracted 20-person crews doubled, to about 300. State and federal officials expect to need about 237 private crews this year, based on the projections for the fire season.
Some firefighters say the growth reflected the government's willingness to look the other way on immigration issues in the interest of keeping the forests protected. The federal work force was being reduced by budget cuts, and the fires exposed the resulting vulnerability.
"It became a game of winking and nodding — we're not going to check — so more and more contractors went almost exclusively to Hispanic or Latino labor," said Scott Coleman, who ran a forestry company in the Eugene area for more than 30 years until his retirement this year.
A spokeswoman for the Forest Service, Rose Davis, said the agency followed federal law in hiring contractors, but relied on the contractors to make sure individual workers had the documents they needed.
"In the contract it specifies that if you're going to bring us a crew, they must be eligible to work in the United States," she said.
Ms. Davis conceded that oversight in checking up on those contracts had not been the agency's top priority, but that the inspector general's report would lead to more attention.
Fire company owners say they rely on workers to tell the truth and provide documentation.
"They show me documents and ID that's good enough for me," said Jose Orozco, Javier Orozco's father, who runs two fire companies of mostly Mexican workers from his base in Sheridan, just west of Salem.
State labor officials in Oregon say they do not look at immigration issues when it comes to the forestry companies. Their job, they say, is making sure people are treated fairly by employers.
But fair treatment in the forestry and firefighting business, labor experts say, is uneven at best. Sometimes, they say, fire companies drive hours to a fire only to find there is no work because the fire is out and workers do not get paid — or they fight the fire and do not get the wages they are entitled to receive after expenses and travel are deducted.
"The issue is not immigration, it's the powerlessness of the workers," said D. Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy group based in Portland.
In other ways, the contract firefighter world — especially in language training — is becoming a laboratory for how the issues of a multilingual, multicultural work force are managed.
Elva Orozco sees both sides of the debate. Her son, Javier, was born in Oregon and has been a crew leader since 2002. His English is good. Her husband, Jose, who immigrated from Mexico in the 1970's, started their fire crew business in the early 1990's, and sometimes still struggles with the language. She thinks that Jose may not be able to pass the new language requirements. And maybe, she added, that could be for the best.
"They've got to be safe," she said.
Other people in the business say that whatever the motivations are for the contract changes, immigrants will be hurt the most. Dillon Sanders, for one, is fine with that.
Mr. Sanders, who said he was a disabled military veteran from the Persian Gulf war, started a fire company last year near Portland, but found himself underbid by minority contractors who he thinks were not following the rules about pay or contracts. He has hired only American-born crews, he said.
"The new system clearly discriminates against minority contractors," Mr. Sanders said, "but that gives me an edge, and I'll take it."