ICE won’t give him names, however. “It’s a privacy issue,” Johnson said officials told him. “I don’t buy that. If we arrest somebody, your name’s on the internet.” (His department’s website posts jail bookings.)

If you have someone’s assigned immigration case number, or an exact name (not always commonly known with double surnames) and country of origin, you can check where a detainee is being held through a federal website.

Unlike with most courts in the U.S., there is no public place to look up a case file in the immigration system. Arrest reports, lawyers’ briefs and hearing transcripts are generally inaccessible.

Despite his agitation, the sheriff is viewed with suspicion by some local activists and immigrants, who believe his office is collaborating with ICE. They note Johnson, along with other local sheriffs, met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a visit to Seattle in September.

“I respect the position,” said Johnson, a Democrat.

Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson has pushed ICE for more information about arrests. Without it, he said, he can’t know if someone is missing or in detention. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson has pushed ICE for more information about arrests. Without it, he said, he can’t know if someone is missing or in detention. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times) 

In 2011, the sheriff opted the county into “Secure Communities,” a federal program that runs fingerprints of people held in local jails and prisons through FBI and Department of Homeland Security databases. If immigration violations are found, ICE will follow up.

Johnson said he sees that as a way of catching, and possibly deporting, serious criminals.

He strongly denies working with ICE in other ways. Like many local law-enforcement officials, he said it’s important that crime victims and witnesses feel safe coming to his office, no matter their immigration status.

“I don’t think I’ve ever in seven years been so misperceived on any issue,” he said.

Huge impact

Shellfish farmers face many uncertainties, Sheldon explained.

The weather is a big one, periodically disrupting work on the water.

ICE is the new big storm, blowing in periodically to take essential workers.

Boats, working in the seafood industry, travel on Willapa Bay. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“One minute they’re here. Another minute they’re not,” Sheldon said. “It’s not like there’s any warning.”

She and other employers say they get required paperwork for every worker — though documents might be fake — and don’t know who is illegally here.

“It’s been a huge impact,” said Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, vice president of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, of ICE’s arrests. Many of the area’s two dozen companies are small businesses. Losing key employees is a big deal. One, she said, lost a worker of 25 years.

And the industry already faced a labor shortage.

Workers need to have an understanding of tides; they carry tide tables like Bibles, arranging their days accordingly. Some operate boats. Others shuck oysters or process fish, not easy when done quickly.

Paid by volume, they sometimes work seven day weeks, or days that take in both early-morning and late-night tides cycles.

“Don’t you want people to work?” Sheldon asked. “Why don’t we say you can’t sell cigarettes to illegal immigrants?”

She was joking. But things didn’t make sense to her.

It was hurting her business. So many people have been arrested or moved that she can no longer fill empty positions. She has had scale back orders and turn away customers.

“Tell him I say hi”

In Long Beach Culbertson Park, as after-school football practice got started, 10-year-old Danner Walters broke into tears.

He was on the sidelines talking about his friend Joel. A week before, Joel left for Mexico with his mom and siblings to rejoin his dad, who had been deported months before.

“We’ve been best friends since kindergarten,” Danner said.

They ate lunch together every day. With schoolmate Dominic Bautista they were “the three amigos,” said Dominic’s mom, Lacey Bautista. The boys had a two-day sleepover to say goodbye, and they posted pictures of that last time together on Instagram with hearts and sad-faced emojis.

“It’s been really hard,” said Danner’s mom, Alisha Vitkoczy. As far as her son and his friends are concerned, Joel is just one of them, she said. They wonder: “Why did he have to go and not them?”

Other kids are confused, too, said mom Heather Guidinger, listening to the conversation. She had a tough time explaining why students were disappearing — about 20 in the Ocean Beach School District this year, according to Superintendent Jenny Risner, and three of five moms who made up an advisory committee on bilingual and migrant students. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, she would say.

Joel and Danner try to call and video chat every day, though the spotty internet connection in Mexico doesn’t always cooperate. Vitkoczy made a few attempts on this afternoon, just enough for the boys to say hi and for Joel to talk about the house his parents are building.

“Is that Joel?” asked another boy, pausing on his way to practice. “Tell him I say hi.”

From Mexico, Joel often video chats with friends back in Pacific County. An American citizen, he recently rejoined his father, who was deported. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
From Mexico, Joel often video chats with friends back in Pacific County. An American citizen, he recently rejoined his father, who was deported. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Up the peninsula a dozen miles in Nahcotta, Sandy Nielson was also missing Joel and his family.

A retired schoolteacher, Nielson had a special fondness for Joel, whose family lived in a trailer a few doors down from her house overlooking the bay. He was 5 when they met — “a kind, charming little boy” who needed some help with school, she said. She gave it to him.

She eventually got to know his mom, Maria Diaz — sister to Gladys Diaz, the piñata maker — his dad, Miguel Meliton, crew leader for a small shellfish farmer, and two younger sisters.

She went to weekend volleyball games Meliton would host in his backyard, a picnic always in progress. When Nielson had heavy things to carry at home, Meliton would help.

After ICE stopped Meliton as he got into his truck one March morning, Nielson worried about Diaz, left as the sole provider. From Nielson’s living room, she would later see Diaz on the mudflats, clamming into the night.

“Rain would be crashing down and she would be out there,” Nielson said.

In Puerto Vallarta, Meliton was missing Pacific County.

He lived there 18 years, or as it felt to the 35-year-old Meliton, “all my life.”

He went home about 10 years ago to see his dying father. When he tried sneaking back into the U.S., he was caught. He made it across the next time, but the deportation order on his record made him a priority for removal under Trump.

He described this from a little fruit store he now runs. It’s OK money, by Mexico standards. Tourists buy from him, and he makes about $200 every two weeks.

It doesn’t go far, though, and is nothing like the $3,500 he earned in two weeks in Nahcotta. He hardly paid any rent there either, because his boss owned the trailer and gave him a steep discount for growing oyster seeds in two tanks in his garage. When they got big, he would dump them into the bay.

While all his family is now in Mexico, they aren’t living together yet. Having arrived first, he rented just a small room.

So Diaz and the kids went to stay with her brother about two hours away. That’s where she and Meliton are building a house, and thinking of opening a restaurant — if they don’t go to Canada, Meliton’s latest dream.

Joel didn’t like Mexico when he first arrived. He missed his friends and talked all the time about the heat.

“Don’t be sad,” his dad told him. “You can go back anytime.”

Joel and his siblings are American citizens.

He likes it better now. He has new friends and a new school. But already he’s thinking about returning to Pacific County. Danner’s mom invited him to visit in the summer.

Sure, Meliton said. Two weeks. Three weeks. The three amigos could be together again.