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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Jamaican guest workers are filling orchard jobs

Clifton Brown, left, and Leon Campbell,  stand at their farmworker housing complex near Monse, Wash., last week. They moved to the area from Jamaica. Wenatchee World (Mike Bonnicksen Wenatchee World)
Clifton Brown, left, and Leon Campbell, stand at their farmworker housing complex near Monse, Wash., last week. They moved to the area from Jamaica. Wenatchee World (Mike Bonnicksen Wenatchee World)
K.C. Mehaffey Wenatchee World

BREWSTER, Wash. – Five months after Gebbers Farms fired an undisclosed number of undocumented workers during a federal audit, Jamaican guest workers have started to flow into Brewster to fill some of the jobs.

That’s a welcome sign in this town, where residents who held jobs here for 10 and 20 years were suddenly let go following the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement action in December.

Months later, some say the impact wasn’t as great as they feared. Many people stayed, or left and came back. The school district – which prepared for a major drop in student numbers – reports that enrollment remained steady, currently at 912 students.

Even if some of those fired moved away to find work, some businesses believe the worst is over. And with new workers arriving, there’s a renewed hope that business will continue to pick up.

People here are accustomed to migrant labor. This time, instead of workers from Mexico, they’re seeing Jamaican men who are all staying at a newly built Gebbers Farm camp northeast of town.

The camp is made up of rows of bright white buildings separated by walkways and flanked by a large building where dozens of men eat, wash up after their evening meal, or sit at a long central table to watch a big-screen television at one end of the room.

Some were reluctant to talk late last week.

But those who did had few complaints, despite the cold and rainy weather so distant from their tropical island.

“I know it’s going to get hot, like, next month,” said Leon Campbell, outside the doorway of one of the farmworker houses.

Campbell, 39, said he misses his 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son back home in St. Mary, Jamaica. “I call and I speak to them, like, twice a week,” he said.

The work in the orchards is “very hard,” he said. A builder and mason in his homeland, Campbell said the living facilities are good, and he’s happy to have the work. He wishes Brewster were a little closer to Seattle. “This is the last spot in America,” he said.

Clifton Brown, 33, said back home he’s a farmworker, also from St. Mary. As for coming to the United States, “It’s all about work, you know,” he said. After just 15 days here, he already decided, “I love it here. I look forward to next year.”

Gebbers Farms – a family owned business that operates a packing house and 5,000 acres of orchards – declined to talk about changes in their labor force.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said he was told that the Jamaican guest workers were coming in stages, and would eventually number about 300 workers.

“I think it’s excellent,” he said. “They’re a really good group. Really polite and fun to talk to. It’s amazing to me – they’re gone so long from their families. That’s what I think would be hard,” he said.

Business owners said that after the massive firings at Gebbers just after Christmas last year, people stopped spending money.

“That was very painful. Very painful,” said Robert Webster, owner of The Music Store on Brewster’s Main Avenue. “It lasted quite a while. I think the panic of it was as bad as anything,” he said.

Many people stopped spending money because they worried about the impacts of suddenly having so many people out of work. Gebbers Farms would not say how many people were fired, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wouldn’t comment on whether Gebbers had been audited.

Enrique Campos, owner of La Moda clothing store, said his sales are still very low, and he doesn’t expect that guest workers will bring his business back to where it was.

“They come in to work, but they don’t spend money. They keep it all to send home,” he said.

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