Small Town Justice

In Mattawa, Washington, 46 Latina daycare providers face jail and deportation after local prejudice, backed by government authorities, led to raids and bizarre accusations of fraud.

By Will Pittz Dec 21, 2003

For 70 days, steel bars and concrete separated former childcare provider Maria Rodriguez from her children. Her eight-month-old baby girl didn’t understand why her mother was gone. Her five-year-old daughter, who has Down’s syndrome and relies on a pacemaker to regulate her erratic heartbeat, needed her mother to bring her to the medical clinic and care for her night and day. So, after the police handcuffed Rodriguez and dragged her to the county jail, she longed for nothing more than to repeat her crime.

Rodriguez is one of 46 Latina childcare providers in the small migrant town of Mattawa, Washington, where caring for children has become a criminal offense. Since May 2002, fraud investigators at the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) have accused Rodriguez and other state-licensed daycare providers of receiving $2 million in fraudulent payments from the state. Newspapers and television stations have vilified the daycare workers. Mattawa’s mayor suggested they were at least partially to blame for the state’s billion-dollar budget deficit, saying to one reporter, “You know, if Governor Locke is losing a billion dollars a year, hey, I think we might know where some of it’s at.”

Rodriguez, who was locked behind bars on August 20, 2003, on a charge of first degree theft, was exonerated 70 days later after an independent investigation determined her innocence. Three months earlier, John Bumford, director of DSHS’s Division of Fraud Investigation, had admitted that allegations of fraud were false. Yet the state and county continue to pursue charges against the daycare providers.

One childcare worker has been charged with identity theft for using a false Social Security Number, even though the department had no authority to require a social security number from daycare providers, according to a DSHS press release. Many other childcare providers are being investigated for overpayments and theft—charges that may lead to their incarceration. A closer look reveals a government investigation that is based almost entirely on prejudice, and an anti-immigrant witch hunt that is ripping families apart and forcing residents in this migrant farming town to live in fear.

Hard Work for Low Wages

In Mattawa, one of the poorest towns in Washington, the need for daycare emerged after the government opened wide tracts of land for agriculture in the 1980s. Corporate agriculture flooded in, profiting on the apple, pear, grape, hops, and alfalfa harvests. For most of Mattawa’s residents, who number 5,500 during peak agricultural seasons, the day begins as early as 5 a.m. Filling an 800-pound bin full of Washington’s famous Red Delicious apples garners $10, and a fast picker can fill six bins in a day, says Tomás Villanueva, a founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in Washington and a community relations coordinator for DSHS.

The people who watch the workers’ children start their days even earlier, often beginning at “four in the morning and finishing at seven at night,” recalls one former daycare worker. “For farmworkers, the need for childcare is dire. If you’re poor, you could pay more for childcare than you earn in the fields,” says Villanueva. Yet the notion of state support for immigrants has never gone over well with the town’s white residents. In 2002, the city blocked government and nonprofit housing for farmworkers, arguing that the residents, who would not pay property taxes, would be a drain on municipal coffers.

So when the media joined the attack on undocumented daycare workers, they touched the right buttons for local residents. “So how are these illegal aliens able to… gain access to tax money to run daycare centers?” asked KREM 2 reporter Randy Shaw. “They are using badly forged ID cards in an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of professional DSHS licensers.” While Shaw brands all of the daycare workers in Mattawa as “illegal aliens,” most Latinas assert that they are citizens or legal residents. The Seattle Times quoted former DSHS investigator Ross Carmen who accused childcare workers of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in fraud, a bizarre allegation for women who are barely making minimum wage. “We’re not just wasting,” Carmen said in a television interview with KREM 2 News. “We’re violating federal law by giving this money to people who don’t have a right to be in the country.” The local belief among Mattawa’s white residents, based largely on these reports, is echoed by Sergeant Steve Jensen of the Mattawa police department when he says, “These women are bringing in $10,000 a month at least from taxpayer dollars.”

Along Mattawa’s roughly paved streets, low-cost, pre-manufactured homes and trailers are separated by dusty lawns scattered with weeds and few trees. In the evening, the town’s residents return home from the fields, sun-scorched and weary from hard labor in temperatures that regularly exceed 100 degrees. Daycare may earn more than pruning and picking, but not much. Most daycare workers in Mattawa earn between $10,000 and $18,000 a year. “Childcare is not a money-making activity,” says Rachel Langen, director of Washington’s Department of Childcare and Early Learning.

Yet hard work for low wages has done little to protect Mattawa’s daycare workers from overzealous state and county officials. Of the 46 Latinas investigated, fraud investigators have referred 10 cases to the county sheriff and prosecutor for possible felony charges. DSHS’s Division of Fraud Investigation and the county prosecutor are pursuing these charges even after DSHS found that the daycare workers, insofar as it can determine, did not bill the state for “phantom children.”

The Department of Social and Health Services also reports that thus far, 22 daycare providers are under investigation for the assessment and collection of overpayments. The overpayment allegations result mainly from a failure to comply with state regulations requiring that daycare providers retain child attendance timesheets for five years—a requirement that few providers in Mattawa are likely to be aware of. When the five-year regulation was established, the English version of the state’s manual for licensed childcare providers was updated with the new information. The Spanish version was not.

So Many Daycares

As the county drags out an investigation, the women are caught in a legal limbo with a likely outcome of prison or deportation. What is the main motivation? “Racial tension in Mattawa is thick,” says Villanueva. “People in power are seeing the community changing, and are afraid political power is going to change. The mayor used to be very supportive of the Latino community, but that has changed completely.”

Judy Esser, a white-haired woman in her 50s who is both Mattawa’s mayor and operates the local realty office, explains how the crackdown began. “We were asking, Why are there so many daycares in this town?” The suggestion of fraud led DSHS investigators to file for a subpoena to investigate every daycare in Mattawa. “Most people think I was the one who told them to investigate,” says Esser, her thin-lipped smile revealing pride rather than chagrin. It was someone else at town hall, she says, “but frankly I don’t mind that people think so.”

Soon after, in three days beginning on May 7, 2002, investigators invaded the homes of every childcare provider in Mattawa. “Two men came into my house while I was caring for kids,” says Maria Chavez, a 56-year-old widow and mother of two. Chavez has lived in Mattawa for 15 years and has been providing childcare for the past six. She recalls the men pushing their way into her living room, one a DSHS investigator, the other introduced as an interpreter. “They came right into my house. They were shouting at me and telling me to hurry. The kids were crying and crying, holding onto me. They were terrified.”

The investigators demanded that Chavez and the other women turn over all of their records of providing childcare. Then, more frightening questions emerged. “They started asking me for my legal residency papers, check stubs, and my Social Security card,” Alicia Medrano, a 37-year-old wife and mother of four, remembers. “They asked me for the Social Security Number of my husband and my kids. They asked me who the cars out front belonged to, and for the Social Security Numbers of their owners. I didn’t understand why they were asking all these questions.”

The reason why, as the women would not discover until a chance encounter between one daycare provider and one of the “interpreters” who accompanied the fraud investigators in October, was that the “interpreters” were actually agents from the INS in disguise.

The subpoena did not grant investigators the right to request residency information, nor did it permit them to take original documentation. Yet, “they took everything I had,” says Sonia Jimenez*, a 33-year-old mother of three. “They took all the originals, and all of the papers they returned are copies. After they returned it, I am still missing the file from one child, and on some of the copies I can’t read important dates.” In some instances, the investigators forced women to sign a statement confirming that all documents had been produced, so that investigators could later say that subsequently discovered records were manufactured. These methods have left women vulnerable to accusations that might be levied against them.

Alicia Medrano is legally permitted to work in the U.S., but she is so traumatized and frightened by the incursion that she sent her childcare license back to the department. “They tell me I still have an overpayment,” she says in an apprehensive voice. “I have so much stress right now I am seeing a doctor. I don’t know what will happen to me or my family.” The women are anxiously awaiting the outcome of Rodriguez’s case. Several of their cases are already pending in the hands of the county prosecutor.

The Hand of Local Prejudice

The unannounced raids were unlike any seen in eastern Washington since before the INS curtailed the practice of arbitrary sweeps of Latino homes and workplaces decades ago.

For years, employers who hired undocumented workers got by on a “nod and a wink,” because everyone recognized that migrant farmers were good for business, says Amelia Ramon, manager of Northwest Communities Education Center, an organization that supports eastern Washington’s Latino community. For daycare workers in Mattawa, that feels like a distant past. “The INS feels like they can get away with a lot more since Sept. 11,” Ramon says.

The tension between immigrants and white residents in Mattawa and in migrant farming towns across the nation, however, existed well before Sept. 11. Mattawa is 90 percent Latino yet run by a white mayor, white law enforcement, and mostly white business owners. The Latino population is perceived as a threat by the town’s white residents. “We’ll lose the town,” says Steve Jensen, a police sergeant with a buzz haircut and tobacco packed in his lower lip. “Within another five years, this town will be 100 percent (Latino). I wouldn’t raise my kids here anymore.”

Like Rodriguez, Medrano, and Chavez, most of the daycare workers have formed the fabric of Mattawa since the first big orchards began to fill the once-barren slopes of the Columbia River gorge. They have seen their children grow up in Mattawa, get married, and have their own children. They remember when the streets of Mattawa were still made of dirt. “They don’t have a right to intimidate us or discriminate against us,” says Chavez. “They are always looking for ways to incriminate us, but we have the right for respect.”

Now, Rodriguez’s days in Washington may be numbered. Rodriguez and the rest of the daycare workers are at the mercy of a justice system where the odds are stacked against them. Thomas Earl, the public defender initially assigned to Rodriguez because she could not afford her own representation, is in disbarment proceedings for failing to show up in court or prepare for cases, pressuring clients to plead guilty, and squeezing poor clients for money. In a rural county lacking adequate justice services for the poor and Spanish-speaking, and with ineffective assistance of counsel, the danger of wrongful convictions is high. “I think they could deport me. My application is in to the INS, but I don’t know when I’ll receive more information,” says Jimenez. “When there’s a knock on my door I don’t know if it’s going to be them coming for me.”

Like Jimenez, Rodriguez has applied for citizenship—her right under federal law because she has been in the country for more than 10 years and because she has a citizen child with exceptional medical and personal needs. Although she submitted her application last April, such requests take months, if not years, to process. If Rodriguez is convicted of theft, she is likely to lose her deportation hearing as well. These have become the consequences for providing childcare in a town that desperately needs it.

The outcome of these investigations could likely rest more upon prejudice than on the evidence against these women. The nature of small town justice suggests as much. In 1999, all-white juries convicted 46 African Americans in Tulia, Texas, of drug offenses based on scant evidence. Many spent years in prison before it was determined that their arrest was based solely on the fabrications and false accusations of one racist white police officer. With government authority backing the hand of local prejudice, Mattawa, Washington, may be on track to join Tulia’s place in history. And 46 Latina women, their families, and the countless children they care for will be the victims.

*Name has been changed.