The firings of about 550 people at Gebbers Farms are raising worries about more audits and firings across Central Washington, including in Yakima, where much of the agricultural economy depends on an illegal work force.

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BREWSTER, Okanogan County — The letters came on a Wednesday, hand-delivered to hundreds of field and warehouse workers two days before Christmas.

Each contained a four-sentence explanation beneath the company’s letterhead.

Federal immigration authorities had alerted Gebbers Farms that a number of its employees’ hiring forms were suspect. Unless those employees could prove they were in this country legally, the company would let them go.

Many couldn’t. Like the vast majority of America’s agricultural work force, they were illegal immigrants who used fake documents to get jobs picking and packing fruit, in this case in and around this small town on the Columbia River north of Wenatchee.

Five days later, the company dismissed an estimated 550 workers — equal to about a quarter of Brewster’s population. It was the biggest firing of its kind ever seen in Washington. And former workers say the letters and firings are still coming.

What’s happened at Gebbers Farms has been felt far beyond this shaken community. It’s raising worries about more audits and firings across Central Washington, where much of the agricultural economy depends on an illegal work force.

“If the entire industry was audited it’d be impossible to fill all of the jobs,” says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

With the firings, the complexity of illegal immigrants in the work force becomes starkly clear.

Other immigrants — some legal and some not — have learned of the sudden job openings and are arriving to fill the void. Some of the applicants may not be new at all.

“I was thinking about changing the Social Security number I use and reapplying,” says Antonio Sanchez, a 51-year-old former Gebbers orchard worker. “I don’t know what to do.”

Five generations of the Gebbers family have farmed here along the Columbia River. The company runs more than 5,000 acres of apples and cherries, including one of the world’s largest contiguous orchards. Its products are marketed internationally.

“This town exists because of them,” says Esteban Camacho, who manages a local bakery and like most Mexican immigrants here has worked for Gebbers.

By most accounts, the company is well thought of. It built housing and soccer fields for its workers and, unlike many other growers, provides stable year-round work.

Rumors about the firings abound in Brewster, but details remain scarce.

Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Seattle, says she can’t say anything about the incident at Gebbers or even confirm her agency conducted an audit.

Industry officials say ICE has audited a half-dozen smaller Washington growers in recent years. The only other known massive firing prompted by an ICE audit was last year at American Apparel, a Los Angeles-based garment company.

ICE first notified Gebbers in 2008 that it had been audited and that it needed to take action, according to industry officials. Gebbers acknowledged the audit in a brief statement dated the day of the firings. The statement closed with: “Gebbers Farms will continue to welcome workers of all backgrounds with proper work authorization.”

Since then, company officials have declined to speak publicly about the situation. Even Brewster’s mayor says he’s had trouble finding out what happened.

Obama shift to audits

What happened at Gebbers reflects a change in strategy under President Obama’s administration, which is shifting ICE’s focus away from targeting illegal immigrants and instead focusing on those who hire them.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tougher enforcement, sees Obama scaling back efforts to crack down on illegal immigration by emphasizing audits instead of workplace raids.

Immigrant-rights advocates call audits the more humane of the two approaches.

“This is not to say this new approach does not create hardship,” says Matt Adams, legal adviser for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle. “But I think if the government is going to enforce the laws that are on the books, they should be given credit for doing it in a way that is not tearing families apart.”

Thirty-three Washington companies were audited last year, and ICE spokeswoman Dankers says employers can expect more to come.

“We know that changing the behavior of employers to ensure they hire a legal work force doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “We want employers to know that regardless of size and industry or your location and the type of business you have, the federal government expects these businesses to comply with the law.”

Few growers will speak openly about the issue. Bob Brody, who owns King Blossom Natural, a 344-acre organic apple orchard in Brewster, is one of them.

“What happened at Gebbers — it fries my brain sometimes,” says Brody, adding that he shouldn’t have to verify whether a worker’s status is legitimate.

He says every one of his employees, except for his office manager, is Latino. “Americans don’t stop by and ask for jobs right now,” Brody says. “There is a 10 percent unemployment rate. And I’ve not had a single U.S. American stop by and ask for a job.”

On many evenings, the conversation between Daniel and Angelica Aguilar turns to just that. The recently dismissed couple and their toddler daughter live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment near the center of Brewster.

“During the cherry-picking season, there’s maybe 2,200 of us working in the orchards,” says Daniel Aguilar, 26. “Of those, there wasn’t a single white American.

“Why does it bother them that we’re doing the work they don’t want to do?”

In part, the Gebbers firings have produced the desired effect. Of the dozen or so families in Brewster interviewed by the Yakima Herald-Republic, about half say they plan to return to Mexico. And everybody knew someone who had already left.

“What’s the point of staying? There are no jobs,” says one woman, who identified herself only as Mariela in fear of being deported.

“Fight the good fight”

But for every illegal immigrant who leaves, there seems to be another one willing to risk his luck.

Before dawn one recent foggy Tuesday, groups of men waited in the cold for Gebbers vans to pick them up for work pruning apple trees.

“I just got a job here,” says one young man who came from Los Angeles after learning about the sudden openings. He would not identify himself.

The others laughed nervously. “Are there supposed to be more audits?” one called out, before saying he needed to find a better Social Security number.

The presence of new workers who are here illegally has created some resentment among those who were laid off. But some have a hard time blaming their fellow countrymen.

“It’s not their fault they’re working,” says Janeth Hernandez, who doesn’t know how her family will make the rent this month. “They have to fight the good fight, too, just like us.”

The December firings clearly disrupted the Gebbers operation, says Dan Fazio, the Washington State Farm Bureau’s director of employment services.

“It’s wrong for the administration to be doing raids or … audits without investing time and energy into a functional guest-worker program,” says Fazio, noting that growers can’t compete with lower wages in Chile and China.

ICE encourages the companies it audits to use the federal E-Verify system, which allows employers to check whether new hires are legally authorized to work, Dankers says.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which operates E-Verify, says no companies in Brewster use it. Industry leaders say most growers are reluctant because the program won’t give them an answer they like.

And in politically conservative Eastern Washington, that doesn’t gain them many supporters. Some people, including the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and Grassroots on Fire, blame the growers for attracting illegal immigrants.

“They want the illegals to disappear and they want the employers that hire illegals to be put in jail,” the farm bureau’s Fazio says. “We want to assure these people that farmers don’t want illegals more than any other citizen …

“But when you ask these people, ‘Do you want to have your apples from China?’ they always respond, ‘No, we’d like American apples.’ “

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, says it doesn’t have to be an either-or issue.

“First we have to realize that we have to secure our borders,” Hastings says. “The nature of our agriculture industry requires a migrant labor force, and … the best way to address that is with a workable guest-worker program.”

Few Washington growers use the current guest-worker program, which they consider expensive and cumbersome.

The Growers League, meanwhile, supports a bill that would create a path toward legal status for agricultural workers as well as revise the guest-worker program.

“Most difficult times”

In Brewster, the next six weeks will see a tense waiting game for former Gebbers employees. The company has given those who live in a series of camps deep inside its orchards until the end of March to vacate. School officials are bracing for the loss of state funding that comes with each of the children of the fired workers. Food-bank volunteers say they’re seeing plenty of new faces.

Despite what happened, few former employees complain about the company. They just want their jobs back. The rumor these days is that in March they’ll be rehired.

“Fifteen years I’ve worked for this company,” says one man, who declined to give his name for fear of losing his housing. “I still have some hope that maybe by March everything will get sorted out. In the meantime, these are the most difficult times.”