A small town in the middle of the eastern Washington desert has become the poster child for America’s failed immigration policies.
Mattawa is a town of about 3,000 located in the lower Columbia Basin. My husband grew up there back in the days when there were only a few hundred people in town, and he can remember the sign on the edge of town out in the sagebrush that warned residents not to proceed if the sign’s red lights were flashing. (Mattawa is one of the closest towns to the Hanford nuclear reservation.)
It’s a town that has seen explosive growth since we lived there as a young married couple twenty years ago, and it’s a town plagued with problems. One Sunday morning back in 1992 my husband was one of the first people to discover a bloodsoaked taxi next to the town’s only park (the driver had been stabbed and left to die in the sagebrush near Priest Rapids dam). It was one of four murders that would take place in Mattawa that year. It was probably the first time the town made statewide headlines--the town of less than 2,000 people was the murder capital of the state.
According to the official census, Mattawa had grown to 2,600 people by the year 2000, but everyone who knew the town knew that was a wildly inaccurate number. Not only were families doubling and tripling up in housing, the population fluctuated so strongly that a count in March and a count in July would vary by the thousands.
The seasonal population explosion and influx of migrant labor was directly tied to the area’s turnover from row crops like alfalfa and corn to highly profitable orchards and vineyards—crops that need huge amounts of seasonal hand labor.
So Mattawa changed from a sleepy town with a single tiny grocery store into a bustling burg with four grocery stores and two big clinics in about ten years. There was a waiting list at the post office for PO boxes, and the lack of housing for migrant workers in Mattawa made statewide news in 1998 when then-Governor Gary Locke toured Mattawa to meet with workers living along the Columbia River. The state allocated $4 million to build new housing to shelter migrant workers. Catholic charities built more low-income housing in town, sparking a bitter feud with the mayor because that type of housing is exempt from property taxes.
Then a very interesting thing happened. The mayor of the town asked the local police to investigate the number of daycares inside Mattawa’s city limits in 2002, and filed a complaint with the state alleging the daycares were committing fraud by billing for phantom children.
So Mattawa was in the news again. How could a town of 2,600 possible have fifty registered daycares? Something obviously wasn’t adding up. Initial outrage over the daycare scandal was directly due to the inaccuracy of Mattawa’s population numbers. What looked bizarre on paper was actually pretty reasonable, if the large underreported migrant population and three small nearby communities were taken into account. Since most home daycares only care for 5-7 children at a time, the high number of licensed daycares serving an area of about 10,000 people started to make more sense.
But fraud was going on at some of the daycares. The sheriff’s office and local police suspected up to 40 of the 51 daycares to either be overcharging or engaged in other illegal activity, according to a report from the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
Then an investigation turned up massive problems with the way the state’s Department of Health and Human Services was licensing the daycares in the first place. The Washington State Auditor’s Office blasted DSHS for their overpayments, shoddy bookkeeping, lack of background checks (back then, DSHS wasn’t even asking daycare operators for their social security numbers) and general mishandling of daycare operators in Mattawa.
The incident blew up in to a statewide finger-pointing match. State legislators accused the DSHS director of outright lying and stonewalling, and DSHS refused to even turn over information that the Grant County Sheriff’s Department needed to complete their criminal investigation.
Since then, Gov. Chris Gregoire created a new agency to handle home daycare registration and licensing called the Department of Early Learning (using the tried-and-true method of changing the agency’s name in an effort to change public perception), and the head of DSHS resigned in March of 2005.
Nine of the daycare operators who were investigated during the scandal successfully sued the state for the incredibly botched DSHS “investigation,” of the daycare workers, which included the particularly boneheaded move of using Immigration and Naturalization Service agents as “translators." The daycare workers claimed the state had violated their civil rights by taking important documents and entering their homes without search warrants. The nine women named on the class-action lawsuit were compensated $45,000 each for DSHS’s mishandling of the investigation, and the state agreed to change the way it handled investigations in the future. Mattawa’s mayor also had to apologize to the women personally.
Only one of the fifty daycare workers investigated was ever charged in Grant County (she was convicted of fraud and deported).
But here’s where things get sticky again. Five women with connections to the scandal were indicted by the state’s attorney general in 2009 for witness tampering and fraud. The attorney general’s office told a judge last year that a cooperative witness had agreed to wear a wire while conversations about the daycare fraud were taped.
All five of the indicted women were let off with a slap on the wrist. A woman who had worked for DSHS investigating cases of fraud testified in federal court last fall that some of the daycares had received payments from the state for children who didn't exist and reimbursements for days of the month that didn’t exist (like Feb. 30th).
At least one of the women who was sentenced was still operating a daycare in Mattawa last year, according to the state’s Department of Early Learning. She had even applied for a variance from the town’s planning commission to increase the size of her operation.
During the seven years it took for the daycare scandal to settle out, Mattawa found itself in the news again after being investigated by the Department of Justice for not providing adequate services in Spanish at town hall. DOJ insisted the town come up with a “Language Access Plan” for its Spanish-speaking residents, but the DOJ offered no funding, no training, and few suggestions for implementation.
The ACLU even weighed in on the DOJ’s decision: “… is there any other nation on Earth whose government would force a local government there to adopt English and make it available, because a large number of Americans had moved in and taken over? For that matter, what other nation would even allow such an influx of Americans, if they came in violation of local and national law?”
A pro-bono law firm that represented the daycare workers suing the state for the improper investigation has also wedged itself into Mattawa’s government…as if the feds weren’t enough. The Northwest Justice Project has insisted they should be involved in everything from selecting members for the town’s “Language Access” committee to helping to set standards and wages for translators the town hires. A representative of that same law firm felt comfortable enough to make outrageous accusations against the town’s police chief at a public meeting held by the Hispanic Affairs Commission in Mattawa a few years ago, stating that the chief had told a woman distraught over a runaway child that he encouraged kids to use drugs.
But the most shocking statistic of all is that never got any big news coverage was that only about 40 people voted in the last general election in Mattawa. That abysmal figure—less than 2% of the population—is a grimmer factoid than Mattawa’s crime rate or anything else you’ll see in future news about this troubled town. The government in Mattawa is no longer representative of the people who live there, which guarantees that bizarre situations like the daycare scandal and the daily involvement of attorneys and federal government involvement in the town’s day-to-day operations will continue.
Without civic engagement from locals, outright lunacy will continue in places like Mattawa. The “legislation by lawsuit” model that results when everyone else besides a local government steps in to solve a town’s problems is wasteful, inefficient, and misguided. Worst of all, the kind of national scrutiny and attention directed at a town whose social fabric has so obviously and completely broken down discourages the very thing Mattawa needs…more local people running for office.
The time has come to treat the lack of registered voters in towns like Mattawa as a matter of national security, given what happens to a community that doesn't have a representative government.
Getting the people who live and work here naturalized so that they can participate in our government should be a national priority.