“Dear President Fox . . .”: A Cowboy Sheriff Gives the Mexican President A Piece of His Mind

Los Angeles Times
May 12, 2006
By Alex Tizon

PENDLETON, Oregon – Out of ideas and low on cash one cold morning, the man with the biggest badge in town put his meaty fingers on a keyboard and tapped out a letter to the leader of Mexico. “Dear Presidente Fox,” it began. “My name is John Trumbo. I am Sheriff of Umatilla County in northeastern Oregon, United States of America.”

Illegal immigrants “from your country” who committed crimes here, the letter said, cost Americans lots of money. Last year, more than 360 of “your citizens” spent time in jail “at a cost of $63 a day which equates to a request for payment of $318,843,” the letter concluded. “At this time, you will not be billed for medical, dental and transportation costs. Your prompt attention to this request will be very much appreciated.”

Three months later, Trumbo reports, Vicente Fox still has not paid up. The Mexican president has issued no response, no installment payment, nada. The silence has reverberated at the Umatilla County Justice Center, a complex of modular beige buildings set among rolling hills of wheat. Here, the influx of Mexican immigrants — many of them illegal and a portion criminal — has become an increasingly prickly issue. Trumbo’s letter voiced the growing frustration of a region that has been compared to the California farmlands of the 1950s and 1960s — a place going through a transition in racial demographics.

Between 1990 and 2000, Umatilla County’s Hispanic population, including legal and illegal immigrants, jumped 114 percent to 11,400 people, according to the Census Bureau. This doesn’t include thousands of seasonal workers who live here part of the year and many others who choose not to be counted.

About 70,000 people live in the county. In towns such as Hermiston, Umatilla and Milton-Freewater, Hispanics occupy entire neighborhoods, and the beginnings of “Little Mexico” commercial areas have taken hold. The neighborhoods tend to be poorer, and many residents blame Hispanic immigrants for the region’s gang and drug problems.

Public schools have become increasingly populated by Hispanics. In Milton-Freewater and Umatilla, with a combined enrollment of about 3,300, Hispanics make up half the student body. No one knows how many are children of illegal immigrants, because federal law prohibits schools from asking about parents’ immigration status. Undocumented residents have access to state and county services for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health, domestic violence and nutrition. While there’s grousing about taxpayer money being used for these services, nothing ignites more anger than undocumented residents who end up in the criminal-justice system.

“They already broke the law once coming over here,” says Pendleton resident Elaina Solomon, 49, an immigrant from Honduras who works as a legal assistant. “Then they commit murders and robberies while they’re here. Why should we pay for their room and board at the jail? Why should we foot the bill?”

Trumbo’s letter to Fox resonated with Solomon and many other county residents even as some in the Hispanic community privately grumbled. To anyone who asked, Trumbo explained:

The county has a daily jail capacity of 252 inmates but can afford staff and services for only 135 inmates. The sheriff’s office should have a minimum of 27 patrol officers but can fund only nine. Between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. each day, no patrol officer is on duty. “When people call the police, they expect to see the police,” Trumbo says. “They see it on TV all the time. But there are times when I can’t send anybody, because I don’t have anybody because I don’t have the money.”

One reason, he says: the department spends much of its $6.5 million annual budget on apprehending and jailing illegal immigrants. He has no problem with Hispanics personally, he says. “Some of my best friends,” Trumbo says, “are Hispanic.” He just wanted to tell someone, anyone, about the situation here. The 56-year-old sheriff and native Oregonian speaks his mind largely without editing: “The reason why Hispanics come here is because white people are too damn lazy to bend down and do real work. It’s a fact.”

In the last 16 years, the Hispanic population in 20 of Oregon’s 36 counties has as much as tripled. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number of illegal immigrants in the state has jumped to as many as 175,000, compared with 25,000 in 1990. Many of them end up in places like Umatilla County, where they take the hardest farming jobs — picking asparagus or pitching watermelon — or work on assembly lines in food-processing factories.

The population increase has led to a corresponding rise in the number of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. Trumbo says between nine and 15 of his jail beds are occupied each day by illegal immigrants from Mexico. Among those in jail is Ever Alexis-Flores, 25, convicted in a 2004 murder-robbery near Hermiston. Alexis-Flores and four men broke into a remote house where as many as 12 farmworkers lay sleeping. The robbers, who knew the workers had been paid the previous night, took cash and cell phones and killed one worker and wounded his 16-year-old son.

The majority of jailed illegal immigrants are in for property crimes. One man arrested for burglary, Juan Flores-Romero, has been in the Umatilla County jail 20 times. Flores-Romero, 62, was deported in almost every instance. Says Trumbo: “The old joke among the immigration agents who shuttled these guys back to Mexico was, ‘I hope we make it back to Pendleton before they do.’ ”

It is a national problem. One Justice Department report estimates 270,000 illegal immigrants serve jail time every year, most in California, Arizona, Florida, Texas and New York. It costs the United States more than $1 billion a year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In Trumbo’s letter to Fox, the sheriff asked to be reimbursed for the basics, such as food, clothing and shelter. Not included were costs related to medical and dental services, transportation, legal defense and prosecution, all of which total millions of dollars each year just for Umatilla County.

“Of course, (Trumbo) didn’t consult with us before he wrote the letter,” says Umatilla County Commissioner Emile Holeman. “But if he consulted me, I would have said, ‘Gosh, you should mail that.’ ”

Others found the sheriff’s letter disturbing. Shelley Latin, an attorney who represents mostly low-income Hispanics, says Trumbo’s letter hinted at a type of racism pervasive within local law enforcement. “The implication is that Hispanics are the cause of the crime problems here,” Latin says. “It suggests that if Hispanics were all taken away, we would suddenly be crime-free. That’s just silly.”

The Mexican consul general for Oregon, Fernando Sanchez Ugarte, who received a copy of the letter, says he doesn’t know whether Fox will respond. Ugarte says he personally dismissed the letter as political posturing, not to mention racist. The sheriff, he says, “is pinpointing one ethnic group,” and he’s not sending letters to the presidents of all the other countries in the world. “If a visitor from Switzerland does something wrong while visiting Umatilla County,” Ugarte says, “will Mr. Trumbo send a bill to the leader of Switzerland? I don’t think so.”

At Magana’s Barbershop in Hermiston, 28 miles away, Trumbo’s letter was received with more venom. “It was a slap in the face,” says owner and operator Martin Magana. On this day, a half-dozen young men await haircuts in the one-room shop.

“Yeah, (Trumbo) was trying to be the hero to the Anglos,” says Magana, 30, as he runs an electric shear over the center of a customer’s head. The men in the room are all friends with one essential trait in common: At one point in their family lineage, someone immigrated to this region illegally.

“That’s the thing,” says Saul Olvera, 23, “we’re all one family, one community. We’re all legal in here” — a few of the men snicker — “but a lot of our relatives are still illegal.”

Magana says there’s a new fear among farmworkers in Umatilla County. The immigration debate roiling the nation, of which Trumbo’s letter was just one salvo, has placed Hispanics on the lookout for those trademark pale-green vans that immigration agents use to round up illegal immigrants. “I know people, they’re starting to see those vans everywhere,” he says.

It’s paranoia, someone else says.

One of the men turns to a stranger in the group: “You’re not INS, are you?”

Another man rises abruptly and heads toward the back door.

“Are you?”

Back at the Justice Center in Pendleton, Trumbo has made a copy of his latest letter. This one is to the local newspaper. In it, he recounts the 2004 murder-robbery near Hermiston. Without naming them, he writes that two of the convicted men, sentenced to 25 and 50 years, will end up costing Oregon taxpayers at least $2.2 million. “Somebody’s got to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he says. As for Fox, the sheriff doubts he’ll ever hear from him.