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Antonio Delgado Sr. is typical of the town's small-business owners. Speaking one evening in his grown daughter's house, in the nearby town of Moxee and painted in electric shades of red and green seldom seen in the muted Northwest, the 53-year-old Delgado says he, too, was once illegal and received amnesty in the '80s. For eight years, he was a farm worker, and he put in another 10 years at an apple-packing company. Then a friend and fellow Mexican who owned two laundromats in Wapato offered to sell him one.
To buy it, Delgado got a loan from a Yakima nonprofit called Rural Community Development Resources. Founded in 1991, the organization uses federal grants to help an array of budding Latino entrepreneurs — but only ones who provide identification that they are legal residents or citizens, according to RCDR founder Luz Gutierrez.
In time, Gutierrez's organization dispensed a second loan to Delgado to start a bakery next door to the laundromat, which led him to start two more bakeries in Harrah (not so profitable and eventually closed) and Moxee.
Delgado's bakeries offer the oversize pastries favored by Mexicans: fruitcakes, cream-filled "tacos" (resembling rolled crepes), fruit turnovers that in Mexico would never hold apples but which in Washington make use of the local bounty.
Delgado's 20-year-old son, also named Antonio, works full time at the laundromat in Wapato. And though he plans to go back to school soon, he declares — even out of earshot of his parents — his intention to come right back to Wapato when he's done. "Everyone's family," he says of the town.
And that's almost literally true. Mayor Jesse Farias, 65, is surrounded in town by nine of his 11 siblings. The grandchild of Mexican immigrants who grew up in a section of town then called "Tortilla Flats," he signed up for the military during the Vietnam War. "I thought there had to be a better life," he explains in Wapato's one-story, brick city hall.
There was — at least for a while, he says, but he eventually lost both legs in the war. Out of the military and consigned to a wheelchair, he moved to Olympia. He worked for many years at the state's Employment Security department, then received two gubernatorial appointments, one of which made him the state director of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
In 1999, he returned to Wapato, where he became mayor in 2004.
Why did he trade the state capital for a town one-tenth its size? "This is my home," he says. "I'll always come back."
Similarly, Lorenzo Alvarado, son of a Mexican farm worker and a school principal in nearby Yakima, counts five of his seven siblings as neighbors in Wapato. His wife, a Mexican native, has family in town, too.
Every weekend, Alvarado says, there's some kind of family event: "a barbecue, a birthday party, a quinceañera."
"All the culture I need is here," he says.
Flores, of WSU, says he believes immigrants' ongoing love affair with the valley has kept its housing market afloat. As real estate values tanked in the rest of the country, the valley's stayed relatively stable. Local home prices even rose during one of the worst points of the recession last summer. At the time, ABC's Good Morning America (citing figures from Seattle's Zillow.com) referred to Yakima County as one of the best places in the nation to sell a home.
And to buy one, too. The median price for houses (excluding new construction) is $147,000, according to WSU's Washington Center for Real Estate Research. Those prices have been accessible to many of the region's immigrants, says realtor Hernandez, who estimates that his clientele is 90 percent Hispanic.
Paul Regimbal, president of the Catholic Credit Union in Yakima, says that his business is targeting Latino customers as part of its strategic plan for growth. He notes that many Catholic Hispanics naturally gravitate toward his company, which was originally set up as a cooperative for Catholics in the valley but now serves all faiths. The credit union builds on that affinity by advertising in Spanish-language newspapers and on TV and radio stations.
"Any business that is not wrapping their arms around the facts in this valley is missing the boat," Regimbal says. By "facts," he means Hispanic immigrants. "These folks are here. They pay their bills. They're not going away."
In the years since 9/11, and even more so following the mortgage crash, many financial institutions effectively have made it harder for illegal immigrants to get loans and accounts by requiring a valid Social Security number. The USA Patriot Act required banks to more stringently verify a customer's identity to prevent money-laundering by potential terrorists.
The Patriot Act, though, doesn't specifically require customers to prove their legal status, allowing them to authenticate their identity with what the Internal Revenue Service calls an "individual taxpayer identification number," which one can obtain without a Social Security number. That suffices for the Catholic Credit Union. Regimbal says it's simply not his company's job to delve into immigration matters.
Hernandez says that's another reason the credit union is popular with the Hispanic community. Even so, he says, the rule-tightening in the industry overall is partly to blame for the significant drop-off in business he has seen over the past couple of years. Whereas he once handled approximately 10 transactions a month, he now does about half that.