SEATTLE — 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.
“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.
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.
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.