A month after dozens of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surrounded a meatpacking plant in Morristown, Tennessee, and detained 97 men and women who worked there, the tight-knit rural community is still reeling, but the initial shock has seeped into a quiet pain, as families adjust to lives without work and their loved ones.
As those shipped to immigration detention facilities across the country started appearing before judges for bond hearings this month, some families were reunited, though still facing deportation proceedings, while others braced for long separations. As of Thursday, 20 of those arrested on April 5 were released — but many more remained in detention. “Tragedy continues to unfold,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “Some families are getting really terrible news.”
The Trump administration has promised more worksite immigration enforcement. In January, ICE’s Acting Director Thomas Homan said these operations would increase by “400 percent.” As The Intercept reported last month, ICE appeared to take workers at the Southeastern Provision plant into custody based on their ethnicity, rather than asking question to determine whether they were eligible for arrest and deportation. The day after the raid, about 550 children missed school. At least 160 children found themselves without at least one of their parents.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he is “not shedding tears” about the families torn apart by the raid. “You don’t get to get an advantage in this country by having large numbers of illegal workers working for you,” Sessions added, referring to the plant’s American owners. “You don’t get to benefit from being in this country and looking around the world for the cheapest worker you can find.”
But while the raid was prompted by an IRS investigation of the family-run business, whose owners were accused of evading taxes, filing false tax returns, and illegally employing undocumented workers, so far, they have not been charged.
The Tennessee raid was the largest immigration enforcement operation at a workplace in nearly a decade: Ten years ago today, 389 undocumented workers, including several teenagers, were detained at another meat processing plant in the small town of Postville, Iowa. The devastating impact of that raid lasts to this day and offers a glimpse of what may be ahead for Morristown.
Both of Lopez’s parents worked at the Agriprocessors kosher facility, alternating shifts so that “we could have somebody at home and not be left on our own,” he told The Intercept. Lopez, his parents, and his older sister were undocumented, as were many of those working at the plant; his mother was at work that morning. When a teacher confirmed news of the raid, Lopez sat at his desk, put his head down, and started crying. “There’s mom. Mom’s at the plant. She’s definitely working right now,” he remembers thinking. “I just wanted somebody to wake me up from this nightmare and tell me, everything is fine, it’s a bad dream, you’ll wake up, and everything will be back to normal.” It would be more than a year before Lopez would see his mother again.
Nearly 20 percent of Postville’s population was detained that day. The helicopters circled around the quiet town for hours, as hundreds of armed agents swarmed the streets, blocking every entry with vehicles, lights flashing, driving after people who had tried to escape, chasing them into fields, and going into homes, “pulling people out of closets,” according to accounts of that day. Residents were so traumatized that a few days after the raid, when a truck delivering ice drove through the town, people panicked again, as they thought the word “ICE” painted on the truck meant that the immigration agents were back.
As with the recent Tennessee raid, the Iowa one was prompted by fiscal violations by the plant’s managers, who also subjected workers to unsafe conditions and abusive treatment. Sholom Rubashkin, chief executive officer of the Postville plant, was eventually convicted of 86 counts of financial fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison. President Donald Trump commuted his sentence last December.
Following the raid, workers were bussed to the National Cattle Congress, a facility two hours away normally used for livestock shows. Over the next days, they were brought before a judge, shackled, in groups of 10. Fearful that ICE would go back for her husband and children, Lopez’s mother told officials that she was in the country alone.
That’s when the “where’s Waldo phase” began, said Lopez. Over the next six months, his mother was moved from one detention center to the next — in Iowa, Missouri, Georgia, and Florida — as her family scrambled to find out where she was. Then, on her husband’s birthday, she was deported to Mexico.
With his mother gone and his father out of work as the plant shut down, Lopez’s modest but happy life in Postville ended overnight. “It affected my father so much because this was the very thing we were escaping in Mexico: poverty, the inability of having something,” says Lopez. “The house was just gloomy, it was dead, there wasn’t any life to it. The warmth that comes in a house wasn’t there.”
Lopez started looking for work. He would sometimes say he wasn’t hungry, so his younger sister could have more food. The family lived in their home with their belongings packed up, just in case ICE came back and forced them to move back to Mexico — a prospect that terrified Lopez, who came to the U.S. as a toddler, speaks English without the trace of an accent, and says that when people ask him where he’s really from he responds that he’s “really from Postville, Iowa.”
Postville itself was never the same after the raid.
After the raid, Postville’s economy tanked. The nearly 400 people removed overnight were followed by many who fled in fear of more ICE raids or because they had nothing left there — and with them vanished the money they had spent on rent, groceries, and laundromats. Local stores and restaurants shut down. The school came close to it. Immigrant families, but also Jewish ones who had relied on the plant for work, turned to the local church for help. The ripple effects stretched to nearby towns — like Decorah, where Postville residents would shop at the local Walmart. There were no more quinceañeras, bautismos, bodas, said Lopez, referring to the birthdays, baptisms, and wedding parties that made the town so vibrant. “We had two Mexican stores, a Guatemalan store, a Guatemalan restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a pizzeria. … It was beautiful.”
Last month, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an “anti-sanctuary” bill that cuts state funding to cities and counties in the state that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The bill, which followed decisions by Iowa City and Johnson County officials to limit cooperation with ICE, has reignited fears in diverse communities, like Postville, that remain deeply traumatized by the 2008 raid.
“If you actually look at where the communities that have the most immigrants are … these are really communities that have figured this stuff out,” said Matt Hildreth, political director of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice. “They don’t struggle with the national debate. There’s some tension, and I don’t want to downplay it, but largely, they go about their day, they get their job done. It’s not this hot-button issue.”
One of the favorite arguments of proponents of harsh immigration enforcement is that undocumented immigrants take away jobs that would otherwise go to Americans. But few Americans are willing to work in meat processing plants, and even fewer are willing to relocate to small, rural towns.
“In a small town, if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and right now, there’s a massive fight in small towns and rural communities to keep the populations that they have and to recruit new ones,” said Hildreth, who has also worked as an organizer in rural communities. “Only a couple thousand people lived in that town, and when you take 300 and some out in one day — not to mention all the families that left after it — it’s hard to recover.”
“When people say that you can’t just deport 11 million people, I think Postville is a perfect example of why.”
In the years after the raid, Postville became a case study for failed immigration policy — with researchers analyzing the raid’s devastating impact on the community’s economy and health. One study linked the raid to lower birth weights of babies born to Latina mothers in the months that followed.
It took years for Postville to recover, and when it started to do so, it was again thanks to an influx of new and returning immigrants from Central America, as well as a growing number of Somali refugees who found jobs at the same meatpacking plant, under new owners. The town, which before the raid was home to white Iowans and Hasidic Jews, as well as Mexicans and Guatemalans, is even more diverse today, as eastern Europeans and Somalis have moved there in recent years. Postville’s diversity is rare in northeastern Iowa but not unique in small-town and rural America, where communities in which immigrants live alongside longtime residents have little say in their states’ immigration rhetoric and policies.
Lopez’s mother eventually returned to the U.S. on a visa for victims of crimes, which many of those detained in Postville obtained when they testified against the plant’s management. The entire family now has permanent residence, but their trauma remains. Whenever Lopez sees a police car in the rearview mirror, the fear returns. “It only takes one cop that’s not having a good day, and I could still end up in custody for whatever reason,” he says. Today, he works in Minneapolis and is studying for the LSAT. “I’m trying to do what my parents couldn’t do and live the American life and dream.”
But the Tennessee raid reopened an old wound.
“This raid not only destroyed families and had an incredible impact on everyone around it,” he said, “but I also feel like it’s another victory for the Trumpians, and for anyone that thinks that was the right move and that we should up the ante for the next one, which is insane.”
“How lame is it to think that another human being is below you?”
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Postville’s drama is repeating.
The meatpacking plant, the third-largest business in Grainger County, is operating at 10 percent capacity, and Mark Hipsher, the county’s mayor, has warned of the inevitable impact on the region’s economy. “They’re trying to hire some employees,” the mayor told a local TV station, referring to the plant’s managers. “Hopefully they can get back to full operation. It’d be a big impact on the farming community if they had to completely shut down, too.”
The raid also cut the flow of money that those detained were spending in the community. “A lot of them lived in Grainger County,” said Hipsher. “They bought groceries and automobiles, and they helped the local economy.”
But with Morristown still grappling with the magnitude of the raid’s impact, some Tennessee lawmakers continued to push for anti-immigrant measures. Days after the raid, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a sweeping ban on “sanctuary city” policies in the state. Teatro of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who called the legislation “among the most extreme state-based laws in the Trump era,” noted that one of the state representatives in favor of it used an ethnic slur while promoting the bill. Her group has called on Gov. Bill Haslam to veto it.
“On the heels of the massive ICE raid that devastated East Tennessee communities, the state legislature is seeking to make mass deportation our official state policy,” she said in a statement. “Despite escalating and egregious behavior by ICE, the Tennessee legislature just took away any safeguards against federal overreach and abuse.”
As legislators pave the ground for more raids, dozens of families in Tennessee are reliving the trauma Lopez and his family endured 10 years ago in Iowa.
Carolina, a Mexican woman who was detained at the Morristown plant alongside her husband, spent the day of the raid in anguish over her 10-month-old baby, whom she had left with a babysitter she wasn’t able to contact. “I just kept thinking of my baby,” Carolina, who asked to be identified by her first name only, told The Intercept in Spanish. “I was afraid the government would take him.”
Carolina, whose baby and an 11-year-old son are U.S. citizens, was eventually released that night, but her husband was sent to a detention facility in Louisiana. In the days after the raid, her older son stood by the windows waiting for his dad to come home to take him to soccer practice.
Earlier this month, Carolina’s husband was released on bond. She borrowed the money to pay for it, but they are both out of work. For now, they are getting by on donations from a local church — “but I don’t know how long we’ll be getting help,” she said.
Still, they are together. Her sister’s husband, who was also arrested during the raid, remains in detention. So does her neighbor, whose children have been looking at Carolina’s reunited family without understanding why their own mother hasn’t returned.
“When the kids see other kids with their mom and dad, they get so sad,” Carolina said. “A lot of families are still waiting. … So many families are so sad.”