WOODBURN -- This was a town that taught people to dream.
The odds were against success: A third of Woodburn’s 25,000 residents live in poverty. More than a quarter are undocumented. Nearly half struggle to speak English. But, somehow, this Willamette Valley farming community excelled.
In a generation, Woodburn residents transformed the state’s worst Latino high school graduation rate into its highest. Mexican parents who fled violence to pick berries for $15,000 a year raised American children destined for college degrees and office jobs.
Latinos candidates won a spot in the state Legislature, two on the school board and another on the City Council. They became police officers and school principals.
Then President Donald Trump signed an executive order beefing up immigration enforcement. Federal immigration agents detained 10 men at a Woodburn gas station, leaving workers afraid to go to their jobs and children terrified to attend school. Across the country, undocumented immigrants say they now live in fear of deportation. But most cities are only marginally changed by the immigration anxieties of a minority group that lives in the shadows.
In Woodburn, Latinos aren’t the fringe but the very fabric of the town. This winter, as fear threatened to turn Woodburn into a ghost town, the dream immigrants had worked decades to build began to unravel.
Fathers who came three and four decades ago have disappeared on their way to work. Mothers refuse to leave their apartments, afraid the federal agents they call “La Migra” may be lurking at the grocery. Teenagers worry they may soon become the legal guardians for younger siblings.
Latinos make up 60 percent of Woodburn’s population. After the arrests, business plunged so sharply that chefs and clothing-store owners have stopped ordering supplies in advance. Catholics say they spend Sunday Mass learning what to do if an agent approaches them. Fliers for community meetings and pro-bono attorneys hang in every restaurant.
“Almost everybody in town is impacted,” said Chuck Ransom, the Woodburn school superintendent. “Everybody knows somebody or is related to somebody for whom that situation is real. Nobody can escape.”