An arrest for a simple case of shoplifting last winter led to a raid on a Stevensville business, and the deportation of seven illegal Mexican workers.
One early morning in February, Vaughn Paul, owner of Big Sky Mushrooms in Stevensville, learned that one of his mushroom harvesters, a recent hire, had been picked up by local authorities on a charge of shoplifting at Super One, just outside of Stevensville. In the course of the investigation, it was revealed that the shoplifter was a Mexican national in this country illegally. He told an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) official he and other undocumented workers were employed by Big Sky Mushrooms.
Shortly after the arrest, INS agent Jake Stavlow, acting supervisor of the INS Helena office, turned up at Big Sky Mushrooms and arrested seven more illegal workers and deported them to Mexico. Six other illegal workers at the mushroom farm fled, escaping deportation.
Up until the INS raid, business was brisk. Paul and his partner had the support of Ravalli County’s Economic Development Authority as well as the financial backing of the Montana Department of Commerce. The department, according to Ann Desch, who manages the community development block grant program, awarded Big Sky Mushrooms two loans, one for $273,000 in 1997, and a second for $250,000 two years later. The idea behind the program is to create jobs for low- and moderate-income communities, like the Bitterroot Valley.
With the loans, Paul had pledged to double his workforce from 18 to 37, with 90 percent of the workers coming from the community. He failed to keep that pledge, but Paul says it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the past two years, he says, he’s gone through 100 workers or more and has had almost no luck at all recruiting Bitterrooters.
“It’s indicative of this valley,” Paul says. “I don’t think people in this valley have any work ethic.”
Once, he advertised for workers and got more than 100 responses. He set up interviews and tours of the mushroom farm for each of them. Fourteen people showed up. Two accepted jobs. One worked for an hour and left, and the remaining worker lasted for two days.
Paul says he pays the industry average of 14 cents a pound, which works out to about $8.50 an hour. But the work is monotonous. “It’s like standing on an assembly line,” he says.
He eventually got lucky with a private Idaho job recruitment outfit, which began sending him migrant workers. But it was luck he didn’t need. Though the workers presented social security cards, or at least numbers, the documents were fakes, and the workers were in this country illegally.
He adamantly denies that he knowingly hired illegal workers. “Here I am, thinking I’m hiring legal [workers],” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if the INS knew I was knowingly hiring illegal workers I’d be out of here. I don’t need to bring problems on myself. We’re not trying to outfox the INS; we’re smarter than that.”
Stavlow also says he doesn’t believe Paul knew his workers were illegal. “Unfortunately, a lot of those people were presenting fraudulent papers,” the agent says.
But even before the arrest of the shoplifter, the INS was onto the mushroom farm, says Paul. Last summer, an INS agent showed up and found two illegal workers with false documents. Because Paul has three apartments in Stevensville and one five-bedroom house for his workers the INS threatened to charge him with harboring fugitives. Prison and fines also loomed as distinct possibilities for Paul.
But he “didn’t hear a word” from the INS until last February when Stavlow raided the farm. “I said, ‘Hey man, what are you doing to me? You’ve had my paperwork since last summer. I said, let’s work together. Don’t wipe out my workforce.’”
Between the deportation and the runaways, his workforce dwindled to four, at least six less than he needs to meet his sales contracts with his buyers, which include big retail clients like Safeway and Albertson’s.
Whether those four are illegal workers, Paul can’t say. “If there are any illegals in this plant at this time, we’re unaware of it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Desch at the Commerce Department says her office only learned of the INS raid two weeks ago, and like Paul, maintains that no one knew the workers were illegal. “Supposedly, they were all square,” she says. “My understanding is he was unaware they were illegal.”
The department was excited about the loans to a business with such promise, she says, and is obligated to help Paul out of his dilemma. Her office is working with the state Job Service to find workers, and will stay involved until employees can be found. “It was working until now,” she says. “We’re trying to sort it out.”
In the meantime, Paul has hired a law firm to find foreign employees through a temporary guest worker program. But that’s a lengthy process, and even if he’s successful he won’t hire his first guest worker for another eight months.
He’s not sure if he can hang on that long, especially with the INS threats of jail and fines still hanging over his head.
“I’m being threatened with jail, I’m being threatened with felony criminal charges, not misdemeanor charges. What’s going on is I’m in serious trouble here. There’s no secret about it. If we don’t get some help here we’re going under.”