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Death Of Benjamin Roldan Salinas Sparks Border Patrol Debate In Forks, 'Twilight' Town

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FORKS, Wash. -- Benjamin Roldan Salinas, a forest worker in the country illegally, leapt into the frigid Sol Duc River to escape a pursuing U. S. Border Patrol Agent, disappearing into the fast-moving waters.

For more than three weeks, his family, friends and volunteers – including other illegal immigrants – scoured the dense forest along the swollen river's banks for any sign of him.

The Border Patrol suspected that Salinas had survived and fled. Still, as many as 150 people at a time continued to look.

"They believed he was out there somewhere because he hadn't gone home," Clallam County Sheriff's Sergeant Brian King said.

The search ended June 4 when a family friend spotted the 43-year-old Salinas' bloated, decomposing body entangled in roots downstream, according to the sheriff's report.

His death heightened tensions in what has become a protracted engagement between the Border Patrol and the immigrant population of Forks – the small, remote Washington town best known as the fictional home of the vampire series "Twilight."

"We talk about Arizona, Texas and the southern border...it's here. It's in our backyard," said Forks Mayor Bryon Monohon, about immigration enforcement efforts in his town. "It really is just an atmosphere of fear."

Border Patrol agents have questioned citizens and arrested illegal immigrants leaving the Forks courthouse. They've chased migrants working as pickers for the decorative floral industry in nearby forests.

The crackdown has spurred immigrants and their allies to develop a warning system using phones and text messages any time a Border Patrol car is spotted, according to interviews with Border Patrol officials, town leaders, and immigrant advocates.

The agency says that it is simply following its mandate: Enforcing the country's immigration laws, protecting the border and shoreline from terrorists, drug smugglers and other illegal activity. Forks is just another locale where the nation's immigration laws are being violated, officials said.

"We continue to go out there and do the same mission as we would right along the border," said Border Patrol agent Chris Dyer, after a patrol of the town in March. "Our style doesn't really change. I think they just don't understand the full scope of our duties."

The northwest border was thrust into the spotlight when Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national who was convicted on multiple counts for his millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, was caught by Customs and Border Protection agents in 1999 as he drove off a ferry in Port Angeles, Wash. with explosives in the trunk of his car.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered CBP to beef up its presence on the U.S.-Canada border, almost twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border. Starting In 2007, the federal government began increasing immigration enforcement efforts in Washington state and along the northern border.

Before that, Monohon said, the Border Patrol was rarely seen in Forks.

Border Patrol enforcement practices common on the southern border, such as highway checkpoints, were implemented, miffing residents on the Olympic Peninsula, the area's congressman and local authorities. Agents also conducted more Northwest-accented actions, including checking cars on ferries. As objections mounted, the road checkpoints were cut back. Agents still board passenger buses bound for Seattle as part of their routine security efforts.

The Border Patrol has the authority to conduct enforcement actions within 100-miles of the border. There are about 30 officers now on the Olympic Peninsula, the mayor said.

"I understand... that it's not right for people coming unchecked. But it's not our community's failure. It's a failure of the entire country, that we have to try to rectify somewhere, somehow," Monohon said. "But at the same time, there are still civil rights issues. It's very disturbing that we have people just up and disappear. But it's just Forks, we're a long ways away and nobody pays attention."

Straddling U.S. Highway 101, Forks is small, with about 3,200 residents. Some 40 percent of the school district's students receive free or reduced lunches, a poverty indicator. Forks is an unusual border town in that there's no road or land crossing directly to Canada. Instead, the U.S.-Canada maritime border is about 25 miles to the north in the Strait of Juan De Fuca. The 1441-square miles Olympic National Park is to the east.

The area is home to whites, Native Americans, Latinos and indigenous people from Guatemala. Starting in the mid-1990s, the Latino immigrant community began to grow, Monohon said. Now, about 15 percent of students in the Forks school district are Latino.

For decades the town was reliant on timber. When the industry collapsed, Forks suffered an economic depression.

Now, Twilight fans from around the globe make pilgrimages here to see the inspiration behind the books and movies that feature Forks as a dreary backdrop to the feuding teen vampires and the forest-dwelling teen werewolves. The tourists bring much needed cash.

Immigrants – both legal and illegal – also make up another economic driver: Collecting leafs from the leathery-leaved shrub salal, used in the floral green ornament industry. The floral greens are a $150 million a year business in Washington, according to the state Farm Bureau.

Dressed in heavy rain gear, dozens of immigrants file into vans and trucks every morning from Forks and head to the forest, driving down isolated forest roads to designated areas during picking season. The U.S. Forest Service hands out permits to the men and women, who then sell what they pick to wholesalers. For hours, they cut branches off the shrubs, cleaning out the bad leaves and collecting the profitable ones. They gather dozens of little bundles that are worth a dollar or so each.

"Sometimes it's a little scary being out here," said Virgilio Pablo, a 23-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, while picking during a damp December day in the quiet of the forest. "Sometimes you just hear things and get scared."

Pablo and his wife pick together to make a living. He uses his machete to mark trees. Inexperienced pickers often lose their way in the dense forests, said Pablo, who was deported after his asylum application was denied.

Forest Service officers patrol these woods, too. The penalty for picking salal or other forest-based products outside of designated areas can start at $275.

As he drove around Forks, agent Dyer explained that the Border Patrol tries to focus on illegal immigrants who have criminal records.

During the last fiscal year, the agency recorded 673 arrests in the Blaine Sector, which covers western Washington, parts of Oregon and Alaska. The Border Patrol would not say how many of the arrests involved illegal immigrants with criminal records.

The Clallam County Sheriff's office has no record of a criminal history for Salinas.

Much of the local criticism of the Border Patrol has come from arrests of migrant workers picking salal. Dyer said that they don't specifically target salal workers but when the Forest Service calls for aid, agents respond.

"We can do our job by determining what their immigration status is," Dyer said. "And if they're in the country illegally, we'll arrest them for those immigration violations."

That was the scenario on the day Salinas fled.

According to the sheriff's office, Forest Service and Border Patrol, Salinas and a woman were returning from a day harvesting salal. They were stopped by a Forest Service officer, who then called the Border Patrol.

Forest Service spokeswoman Donna Nemeth said the officer suspected Salinas and the woman were harvesting salal illegally. When a Border Patrol officer arrived, Salinas ran and was chased.

"It's not uncommon to request translation (many of the immigrants are Spanish speakers) from the nearest available resource. And in this case it was the Border Patrol," said Nemeth.

Salinas was last seen jumping into the river. The woman was arrested on an immigration violation and was sent to the Tacoma detention center. She was later released.

"We did the best we could to try to come up with the individual," Border Patrol Spokesman Richard Sinks said. "It's not like we gave up on him and drove off with what we had. It's unfortunate and our heartfelt condolences go to his family and friends.

"Basically, we feel we did our job."

In a statement, Salinas' family said his body would be flown to Mexico this week for burial.

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Associated Press photographer Ted Warren contributed to this report.

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