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State throws its weight behind wildland firefighter who was detained by ICE

Noe Vazquez, center, is a "Dreamer" and volunteer wildland firefighter with Washington state's Department of Natural Resources. Last year, Vazquez lost his DACA status, was forced out of his job fighting wildfires and was detained for roughly three weeks at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center.
Noe Vazquez, center, is a "Dreamer" and volunteer wildland firefighter with Washington state's Department of Natural Resources. Last year, Vazquez lost his DACA status, was forced out of his job fighting wildfires and was detained for roughly three weeks at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center. Courtesy

Most people run away from fires.

Noe Vazquez decided to run toward them.

In 2016 Vazquez, a 20-year-old "Dreamer" from Tonasket — a small town of just over 1,000 residents near Washington’s northern border — began what he hoped would be a career with the state Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighting team.

What Vazquez couldn’t have realized at the time was that only a year later that career would be jeopardized after his DACA status was rescinded. Eventually, Vazquez found himself hundreds of miles from home, detained at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center and facing the very real prospect of deportation to a country he's never known.

Amidst an increasingly contentious national DACA debate, something very unusual happened next — the state Department of Natural Resources stepped up and went to bat for Vazquez and the thousands of Dreamers just like him.

“When I read about Noe’s story, it really sort of put a face on this issue as we watch the debate about DACA,” said Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. “It was absolutely critical that I share this story.”

That’s why in early March she called a press conference to highlight Vazquez’s plight. Together with Vazquez’s legal team from Colectiva Legal and the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, Franz gathered in front of TV cameras and a contingent of journalists in an attempt to explain what was at stake not just for Vazquez but for the state’s largely volunteer wildland firefighting team.

Franz’s office brought the issue to the attention of U.S. Senator Murray, who dispatched a representative to the press conference.

“For a lands commissioner, this was a pretty extraordinary step to take,” a DNR spokesman said bluntly.

Considering the highly politicized and partisan immigration debate, taking a high-profile stance in support of Dreamers didn’t come without risks for Franz and the agency she leads. Tasked with managing more than 3 million acres of land, it would have been easier, and certainly far simpler, for DNR to stay silent.

According to Franz, the decision to speak up was an uncomplicated one.

Vazquez isn’t the only Dreamer on DNR’s wildland firefighting team, she said, and each are important, valued members of a team that makes significant sacrifices each year to keep the state safe.

Franz said DNR must recruit more than 500 seasonal firefighters each season to help battle blazes across the state. Dreamers like Vazquez often bring a skillset to the job — including the ability to communicate important information to rural, Spanish-speaking communities — that’s essential to success.

Vazquez — thanks to his year of experience fighting wildfires in 2016 — had already proven to be up to the job.

“The reality is we need more people who are willing to put their lives on the line and be brave and strong and have the kind of work ethic and commitment … that we see in Noe,” Franz said.

Fresh out of high school, Vazquez — who moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 3 years old — had watched as wildfires ripped through his community the previous two years. Looking back, he said he wanted to do something to help.

“I signed up not knowing too much about fires,” Vazquez said. “I just feel like if I can do something to help, if I can do something for other people, you know you’ve always got to give a helping hand, no matter what.”

Everything changed for Vazquez the following year when his DACA renewal was denied because of a missing signature. Soon, because he was no longer legally allowed to work, DNR had to take him off the job. At that point, the cost to reapply — $500, Vazquez said — was more than he could afford.

“When I lost my (DACA) status, it was pretty depressing moment because I lost my job,” Vazquez recalled. “I was looking forward to another season, looking forward to moving up in the leadership and getting my name out there and being part of the DNR agency.

“It bummed me out, and then I couldn’t do much. Right when I had to leave, it was a pretty sad moment.”

A few months later things got worse for Vazquez. In February, he was pulled over and found to be driving on a suspended license. It was the first step in a familiar string of events that led him to be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and sent to the NWDC in Tacoma.

Vazquez said he was terrified and confused.

“I was kind of speechless, like, ‘Is this serious? Is this for real?’ I was kind of in shock,” he recalled.

After spending three weeks in Tacoma, Vazquez was released on bond while his case proceeded. Luckily, two weeks ago, his DACA status was renewed — thanks in part to the legal assistance he received.

The good news is Vazquez is once again free to live without fear and free to get back to fighting fires.

At least for now.

That’s because on Easter President Donald Trump took to Twitter to deliver his latest incendiary and somewhat incoherent immigration rant, further stoking the DACA debate and — once again — putting the future of Dreamers at risk.

“NO MORE DACA DEAL!” the commander-in-chief declared in his typical all caps, no-nuance style.

When I saw the news, I couldn’t help but think of Vazquez. I thought about the contributions he’s made and the impact he hopes to have for his small, rural community.

“(Dreamers are) trying to do something for our communities and trying to be someone for this country,” Vazquez said. “I’m just hoping that a permanent solution gets put into place and something gets worked out.”

It really seems like the least he and the other Dreamers deserve.