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.
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“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.”
A helpful neighbor
Nuñez first came to the attention of immigration officials in 2008 during a random spot check by the U.S. Border Patrol as he was driving a sick, widowed neighbor to a hospital in Anacortes, documents show.
He had grown close to Natalie White since moving to Orcas Island 10 years earlier, going to her home at the end of each workday to tend to her many guinea pigs, dogs, goats and cats and do other odd jobs.
In return, the 80-year-old taught him English.
When she suffered a stroke in 2008 and was told she needed to go to the hospital, rather than helicopter out, it was Nuñez she called to drive her.
He spent a week in detention after he was picked up and before being released on bail. After a hearing that fall, he was ordered removed from the country.
A month later, White died.
“I know she felt horribly guilty about what happened,” said Eleanor Hoague, a retired Seattle attorney and a close friend and strong supporter of Nuñez.
With his appeals exhausted, Nuñez’s attorneys requested a stay of removal and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in 2012 and 2013 granted it, giving his employers a year to find his replacement.
His attorneys intend to apply for the same form of relief again; there are really no other avenues legally available to Nuñez, although ICE officials last year told the Helsells there will be no third stay for that same reason.
In a statement, the agency said Nuñez’s April 29 removal remains valid.
The latest effort to save Nuñez comes at a time when the conversation around overhauling the nation’s immigration system has shifted to focus on deportations. There have been sit-ins and rallies across the country and, last month, President Obama ordered Homeland Security to review its deportation practices, acknowledging the toll that deportations can take on communities.
Bob Gibbs, a veteran Seattle immigration attorney whose firm represents Nuñez, said while he’s had cases in which ICE has granted stays of removal for humanitarian reasons, “I can’t think of one related to the health of a business.”
“That is such a clear example of how the employment-based component of immigration laws is broken,” Gibbs said.
Tough job to fill
Pete Helsell, the mill’s manager and Jack Helsell’s nephew, said the company is in a position no company wants to be in.
It used to take two men to do what Nuñez now does single-handedly and almost twice as fast and, because of the danger and backbreaking nature of the work, no one has done it for longer than a year or so, Jack Helsell said.
What’s more, the pace of life on Orcas is slow and some who responded to the company’s help-wanted ads had no interest in moving there. Others lacked experience or were well into their 70s and simply too old for the demands of such work, Jack Helsell said.
One man the family hired last year, Pete Helsell’s own stepson, looked promising at first. He had built his own home, was an aircraft mechanic and was willing to relocate from Alaska.
But after he began training with Nuñez, he decided that being a sawyer was not the career he envisioned for himself.
“This work is unique,” Pete Helsell said. “It’s physically demanding and there’s an element of danger to it. There are lots of ways you can get yourself in trouble.”
Nuñez is missing parts of fingers on one hand as testament to the work’s steep learning curve. And Pete Helsell considers it so dangerous, he himself wouldn’t do it.
The Helsells pay Nuñez $25 an hour, not just for his work as a sawyer, but for jobs in many of the family’s other businesses, including firewood.
“It’s a unique situation that means the potential end of our family business,” Pete Helsell said. “We will keep looking for a replacement, but it’s a poor place for any business to be in to have an irreplaceable employee.”
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors enforcement of immigration laws, doesn’t buy their story.
“He’s the only guy who can do this job?” he asked. “Certainly there are people who can be trained to do this; that’s the responsibility of an employer.
“Employers seeking an immigrant workforce can’t continue to treat the federal government as their personnel agency.”
Rare, old-style saw
Nuñez paid a coyote $700 — money he said he’d been saving for a decade — to cross the border into the U.S. from Mexico in 1998. He was 22, had little more than a third-grade education and was unable to speak English.
While many of his countrymen went to work in the fruit orchards of Eastern Washington, he headed to Orcas Island, where he used documents he’d purchased to land a job with the Helsells.
A retired mechanical engineer, Jack Helsell had designed and built the sawmill in 1975 on more than 700 acres of forest land gifted to his family by a friend.
They had the property classified as designated forest land and developed a plan that required logging it.
Helsell outfitted the mill with technology out of use even before he bought it; 56-inch circular-blade saws, widely used until around the 1950s, are virtually out of use today. Most small mills have switched to bandsaws, which allow more precision cutting and less waste.
But the circular saw allows West Sound to supply local customers with longer and wider custom-cut pieces for many forms of construction, as well as lumber for such things as wood trim, flooring and siding.
The Helsells call what Nuñez does with that blade pure art — able to evaluate the shape and imperfections in a log and make quick calculations for how to get the best and most board feet of lumber from it.
Artists from throughout the island often bring special logs they want milled for specific projects — furniture, decks, cabinets — while maintaining its integrity.
And Nuñez’s handiwork is visible in businesses and homes throughout Orcas and other islands, including the 45-foot beam of a performance stage on the Village Green in Eastsound that hosts a number of community events, such as the Bite of Orcas, Saturday Market, and the Concerts in the Park summer program.
Jack Helsell taught Nuñez what he knew about the business and watched as the younger man perfected and then surpassed it.
He had discovered not long after he hired Nuñez that the Social Security number the Mexican national had used to get the job was not his own.
“We slowly realized as the time went by that he was undocumented,” Jack Helsell said. “But by then, he was too good to fire.”
To hear the 90-year-old speak about his sawyer, you begin to understand why he considers him so special, like a grandson.
“He’s just a good person by nature — an unparalleled hard worker,” Helsell said.
“It took him about a year to become efficient and he’s proven to be more efficient and more industrious than anyone I’d ever had,” Jack Helsell said.
“It’s not just his personality and physical strength — but his attitude.”
In fact, Jack Helsell was so desperate to keep Nuñez, he wrote to President Obama suggesting a way employers like him could sponsor workers like Nuñez for legal status and ultimate citizenship.
Obama, he said, wrote back that he agreed with Helsell — but that was all.
“Politics,” the old man muttered.
Nuñez said he’s humbled by all this support.
The uncertainly of his circumstances weighs on him at times. “I cannot plan anything,” he said.
He likes the quiet pace of Orcas Island and said it would be nice to stay, to “get a piece of property and build a little house. But I don’t think it would be fair to a wife and kids because of what I’m facing.”
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.