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Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

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When ICE Comes to Town

Families separated, jobs lost and towns in turmoil: How a quiet corner of eastern Tennessee was turned upside down by Trump’s immigration forces

Alma woke before 6 a.m. She dressed quickly, roused her four children and packed a lunch. It was a chilly spring morning, a Thursday. Light bloomed across the low green hills of east Tennessee as she drove past tomato fields and cow pastures and old cemetery plots until she reached the slaughterhouse.

Housed in multicolored sheets of corrugated metal, the slaughterhouse had been built haphazardly, with its various wings and outbuildings jutting out at odd angles. Its stench drifted across the neighboring yards — rot, heat and manure, with a metallic tinge. Neighbors sometimes complained about the smell, about animal parts left on the road, about fouled wells and, once, a culvert filled with bright-red blood.

Alma, 37, started working on the kill floor more than two years ago. She is a small woman, with long black hair, a round face and almond-shape eyes framed by long eyelashes. Alma wasn’t new to meatpacking work — she’d previously had a job at a poultry processing plant — but this slaughterhouse felt dangerous. She’d heard of workers who were injured by panicked cows or by the knives they used to cut the fat from the meat. Sometimes blood splattered off the line moving above her. The chemicals that were sprayed onto the carcasses got into her eyes and burned. No one offered her goggles.

On that Thursday, April 5th, 2018, work was delayed by broken machinery. Around 9 a.m., a worker named Alberto, a compact man with a flattop haircut and deep smile lines around his mouth, was outside the slaughterhouse moving pallets with a forklift when two police cars pulled up. He thought that there must have been an accident inside. But then a fleet of cars arrived, and he heard the whir of a helicopter above him. Officers quickly surrounded the building, blocking every door. Some wore the black uniform of immigration agents, others military-style camouflage. Alberto recognized some of the men. He had seen them at the slaughterhouse a few days earlier, dressed as civilians and purchasing cuts of beef.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents ordered the workers to line up and began to zip-tie their hands together. Ofelia, who cleaned internal organs, was descending a set of stairs when she tripped and fell. “Stand up!” she heard an officer yell. She looked up and saw the nose of a gun. A worker named Tomas was on a platform 10 feet in the air, where he’d been cutting carcasses. An agent shouted at him to come down with his hands raised, but Tomas couldn’t because he was tied into a safety device. “He just kept shouting at me,” Tomas recalled. “I was terrified that he would shoot me.”

Soon, phones all over nearby Morristown, a modest city of 30,000 where many of the workers lived, began to buzz. Alma’s oldest daughter, Kimberly, a 16-year-old with braces and an open, cheerful face, was in her third-period social-studies class when an aunt called to tell her that her mother had been detained. Alberto’s wife, Anneth, had just dropped off their five-year-old son at school when her phone rang. There’s been a raid at Southeastern Provision, a friend told her. Anneth’s calls and texts to Alberto went unanswered until finally she got a message from an unknown number. “Find someone to pick up the car,” he texted her. Then: “Find a lawyer.”

Back at the slaughterhouse, law-enforcement officers put Latino workers — and only the Latino workers — into vans headed for a National Guard armory in Morristown. Officially, 97 people were arrested that day, all of them undocumented immigrants. (That tally omits at least one U.S. citizen, a DACA recipient and several people with valid work permits who were also detained initially.) At the time, it was the largest workplace raid in a decade — the opening bell, of sorts, in a crackdown promised months earlier by the Trump administration.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

In 2017, the Trump administration announced it wanted to quadruple immigration raids at job sites. There have been massive raids in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio, where this past June federal officers hit a meatpacking plant, sweeping up 146 workers (above). Photo credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Ever since he descended the escalator at Trump Tower to launch a presidential campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” belligerence toward the undocumented has been the animating doctrine of the Trump presidency. Much of the focus of Trump’s rhetoric and news coverage has been on the southern border — on the migrant caravan; on the “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of kids from their parents; on the Wall.

But with billions of dollars devoted to border security, illegal crossings have declined and arrests at the border have actually fallen sharply in recent years. Where Trump’s crackdown is most severe, at least in numerical terms, is in the interior of the country, where ICE is aggressively pursuing immigrants who have been living in the United States for years or even decades. In 2017, the number of people arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border fell to its lowest level since 1971, but ICE arrests in the interior rose 42 percent. Agents are showing up at factories, apartment complexes and courthouses, in both large cities and rural areas, searching for people to deport.

The U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than on the FBI, DEA and all other criminal law-enforcement agencies combined. Once in office, Trump eagerly set about unleashing this bloated deportation machinery. Under a directive from the president, ICE abandoned the practice of prioritizing specific categories of people for deportation — such as those with criminal records. Now, almost everyone without legal status is fair game. That includes a chemistry professor in Kansas who was detained by ICE in January after living in the United States for more than three decades, as well as an Ecuadorean delivery man who was arrested at a Brooklyn military base in June as he dropped off pizza. (Judges later ordered the release of both men.)

In late 2017, the administration announced it would escalate immigration raids at job sites, with a goal of quadrupling such operations. Since the April raid at Southeastern Provision, ICE and other agencies have conducted at least five other major workplace operations, in some cases sending in forces of hundreds of armed officers. Thirty-two people were arrested in May at a concrete plant in eastern Iowa. In early June, 200 federal officers raided two garden centers in Ohio, arresting more than 100 workers. Again in Ohio, just a few weeks later, ICE arrested 146 people in a blitz on a meatpacking plant. In August, a force some 300-strong swarmed a manufacturing business in Texas, arresting 160, while operations in Minnesota and Nebraska swept up 133 workers. Altogether, more than five times as many immigrants have been detained at job sites in the 2018 fiscal year than the previous year.

In the quiet, conservative and God-fearing part of east Tennessee that is home to Southeastern Provision, the raid hit like a meteor, rattling the community hard enough to trouble even some residents who generally felt little sympathy for “illegals.” Hispanic immigrants make up about 20 percent of the population in Morristown, and while some white residents might gripe about immigrants online or while discussing politics, they also work and pray and send their children to school alongside them. Few people expected ICE to whisk away dozens of fathers and mothers from their town — and when it happened, residents responded instinctively, not politically, offering money, clothes, food and other support to the affected families.

Alma came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenage single mother nearly two decades ago. Like her, many of those arrested have been living near Morristown for 15 or 20 years and have young children who are U.S. citizens. In the course of a few hours, these families felt the lives they had spent years building snatched away from them. One hundred and sixty children suddenly had at least one parent facing deportation.

WHEN TRACEY WOLFE heard that a police operation was underway at Southeastern Provision, she assumed it was a small-time drug bust. Wolfe is the editor of Grainger Today, the local paper in Grainger County, where the slaughterhouse is located. Bordered to the south by an enormous reservoir and bisected by the long ridge of Clinch Mountain, the area is a sparse landscape of rumpled green, many of its hillsides furrowed for vegetables or fenced for cattle. Across the reservoir in Hamblen County lies busier Morristown, an industrial hub.

October 8, 2018. Morristown Tennessee. Alma Mercado prepares to cook lunch for her family after a day of mowing lawns for extra money after she lost her job in the plant. After a major ICE raid at the Southeastern Provisions slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN, the latino community in the surrounding area of Morristown and Grainger County has been deeply affected by fear, job loss, and deportations of family members or pending deportation proceedings. (Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone)

After the slaughterhouse raid, 160 children had at least one parent at risk of deportation, including Alma (above), a single mother with four U.S.-citizen children. “All I can think is, ‘Where are my kids gonnna go?'” she says.
Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

Wolfe is a neat, serious woman who wears glasses and her hair in a blond bob. Like most people in the area, she identifies as a conservative. When she got a tip that the hubbub at the slaughterhouse was an immigration raid, Wolfe was skeptical. She couldn’t imagine that federal agents even knew where Grainger County was.

They might not have, if the owner of Southeastern Provision, James Brantley, a balding man with small, deep-set eyes, had been more careful with his finances. Long before the raid, employees at a local bank noticed the Brantley family withdrew a substantial sum of cash from their business accounts each week — as much as $122,000 in a single day, and more than $25 million in total between 2008 and April 2018. Brantley claimed in his financial disclosures that he made only $25,000 a year and that his wife made $8 an hour. After launching an investigation, the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the Brantleys willfully evaded taxes on more than $8 million in wages and were employing several dozen undocumented workers, which is a federal crime.

In May 2017, federal agents sent a confidential informant to the plant, who was hired without being asked for documentation and paid in cash at the end of the week. He worked only four days and didn’t arouse any suspicions, according to former employees. The work was grueling. Employees like Alma made $6 to $10 an hour, but weren’t paid for overtime — which they did regularly, according to court documents — and the informant observed that some had to handle “extremely harsh chemicals” without protective equipment. Brantley’s alleged abuse of his workers was part of the government’s case against him, as outlined in the affidavit: “Southeastern Provision exploited these employees because they were illegal aliens and have no legal recourse for workplace mistreatment.”

Former employees shared other disturbing stories. Alberto tells me one man lost a few fingers using an electric saw to separate a rib cage. Workers who got hurt and needed to go to the hospital were instructed by managers to say their injuries occurred at home. Certain supervisors were kind, Alberto says, but the general attitude was, “If you don’t like it, the door is open.”

Neighbors had their own complaints about the slaughterhouse, which had little to do with the nationality of the people working there. A few weeks after the raid, in a smoky diner a few miles away, a waitress pauses at my table with a stack of half-empty plates balanced on her arm. It wasn’t a surprise that Brantley employed undocumented workers, she tells me; it’s not uncommon in the area. “People are kind of split,” she says. Locals knew the Brantleys and were friendly with them — but many neighbors were fed up with the stench and the noise and the water contamination from the slaughterhouse, and would have been glad to see it shut down. “To tell you the truth,” the waitress says, “the water issue was a bigger deal than the illegal immigrants.”

Trump administration officials describe workplace raids as an effort to hold accountable unscrupulous bosses and to protect jobs for American workers. Immigrant advocates, on the other hand, see them as theatrical stunts designed to terrorize immigrants. Large-scale sweeps can destabilize entire communities, hollowing out towns and rupturing families. In 2008, George W. Bush’s pursuit of undocumented workers culminated with the arrest of nearly 400 people at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa; most were subsequently deported. The operation left tiny Postville a husk of itself — the plant closed, children lost their parents, families fell deeper into poverty, and the landlords and shops that depended on their business floundered.

Punishing employers who hire undocumented workers does not require militarized operations and mass arrests. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, which conducts workplace investigations, can perform audits and fine employers or refer them for criminal prosecution without resorting to raids (that was the approach generally taken by the Obama administration). But the drama serves another purpose. Raids align closely with a theory that appears to be guiding the Trump administration’s approach to immigration enforcement: self-deportation. Promoted by anti-immigration hard-liner and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — and made infamous by Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election — self-deportation is the idea that if it’s not feasible to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., it might be possible to persuade a significant number to leave on their own, if their lives are made miserable enough. Widely publicized raids in sanctuary cities and at work sites, and at sensitive locations like schools, churches and courthouses, send a clear signal: Nowhere in this country is safe.

October 9, 2018. Morristown Tennessee. Signs in English and Spanish at a shopping center across from La Gran Comision. After a major ICE raid at the Southeastern Provisions slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN, the latino community in the surrounding area of Morristown and Grainger County has been deeply affected by fear, job loss, and deportations of family members or pending deportation proceedings. (Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone)

English and Spanish signs in Morristown, Tennessee, where 20 percent of the population is Hispanic. Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

In May, during a speech at a law-enforcement conference in Gatlinburg, a town about 60 miles south of Southeastern Provision, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “not shedding any tears” about what happened there. He said little about the workers and instead focused his ire on their employer. “You don’t get to get an advantage in this country by having large numbers of illegal workers working for you,” Sessions said. “You don’t get to benefit from being in this country and looking around the world for the cheapest worker you can find.”

At the time, Brantley was still a free man and his slaughterhouse remained open for business — a state of affairs that sparked considerable outrage among the families and friends of his employees who’d been arrested. “These kinds of cases can and do result in penalties and even jail time for some employers,” ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett says, adding that investigations often take years before charges are filed. (Brantley’s attorney declined to comment for this story, and messages left at Southeastern Provision were not returned.)

“Over and over again, it is the individual workers and their families, including their U.S.-citizen children, who are made to suffer,” says Michelle Lapointe, a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. None of the 97 people arrested at Southeastern Provision were technically a target of the raid, and afterward only 11 of the workers detained faced criminal charges — for nine of those people, their sole charge related to prior deportation orders. In ICE’s terms, they were “collateral arrests” — a designation that immigration lawyers say enables racial profiling. “You can’t just sweep in and, just on the basis of someone looking Latino, arrest them,” says Lapointe. “There was no probable cause whatsoever to arrest them, and ICE did it anyway.”

IN THE HOURS after the raid, rumors whipped through the area’s immigrant community. A 27-year-old woman named Yahel, whose husband, along with his brother and four other relatives, was arrested at Southeastern Provision, heard that ICE was knocking on doors in the trailer park where she lived. Others heard that police officers were detaining people in traffic stops. Afraid to stay in their homes, many families spent the night in churches. The following day, more than 500 children in the Hamblen County school district were absent.

After Alma, Alberto and others were taken to the armory, a crowd assembled at the school across the street, including Alma’s daughter Kimberly, who, along with her three younger siblings, is a U.S. citizen. She knew her mother was undocumented, but hadn’t thought much about what would happen if she were ever arrested. “We knew it could have happened, but not like this,” Kimberly tells me a few weeks later. That night, 32 people, mainly parents of young children or people with health issues, were released from detention, with little explanation from ICE. Alma was among them. When she emerged, she cried. She’d thought she would never see her children again.

Alberto did not come out of the armory that night. Neither did Yahel’s husband and 63 others. Eleven remained detained in Tennessee while the rest were loaded onto buses and sent to Alabama, and then on to detention centers in Louisiana. For the next several days, Anneth heard nothing from her husband. She was frantic with worry. She’d heard that some of the workers had been beaten by officers. She spent the days with her three young children at Morristown’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, which the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition transformed into a crisis center, deploying a rapid-response system the group had been preparing for months — gathering personal information, connecting relatives with attorneys, collecting money to free detained workers on bond. “In many ways, we expected something like this to happen quite a bit sooner,” says Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC’s co-executive director.

October 8, 2018. Morristown Tennessee. Alberto Librado plays with his son Abdiel after adjusting the handle bars and adding rear pegs for him. Alberto was detained in the raid and is awaiting his court date.After a major ICE raid at the Southeastern Provisions slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN, the latino community in the surrounding area of Morristown and Grainger County has been deeply affected by fear, job loss, and deportations of family members or pending deportation proceedings. (Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone)

“Papa is working, he’ll be back later,” Anneth told her youngest children when her husband, Alberto (above) was detained for a month after his arrest.
Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

It was a few days before Alberto was finally able to call from the county jail in Alabama where he was being held. He assured Anneth he was OK, but the truth was that he was suffering. The jail was cramped and the food disgusting — a biscuit and a piece of bologna with mushy carrots, slices of dry bread with peanut butter. Then he was moved to a detention facility in Jena, Louisiana, some 700 miles from Morristown.

“Papa is working, he’ll be back later,” Anneth told their youngest children, who are three and five years old. Their oldest daughter, Sherlyn, who is 11, felt her father’s absence like a wound. “Usually my dad wakes me up to go to school, and when he didn’t wake me up that day, I felt a little sad,” she says about the morning after the raid. For weeks, he wasn’t there to play soccer with her or help with math homework. Sherlyn spent a lot of time at the church, watching her little brothers in the playground while her mom spoke with lawyers and friends inside, hoping for an update on Alberto’s case. At school, final exams were coming up, and Sherlyn struggled to focus. “I tried to forget a little so I didn’t feel so sad,” she says.

The raid threw hundreds of people in Hamblen and Grainger counties into a state of suspended uncertainty. All of those arrested face the prospect of deportation, with only slim avenues for legal relief. Families already living in poverty or at its brink suddenly lost their income, leaving them reliant on their churches and organizations like the Hispanic Outreach Leadership Association of the Lakeway Area (HOLA Lakeway) to pay for rent, groceries and medical bills. Money that had carefully been set aside for graduation parties, for college, for the dream of owning a home was quickly liquidated; simply freeing those who’d been detained via bond cost thousands of dollars. And no one knew when the charitable donations would run out. “We cannot sustain all of these 50-plus families forever,” says the Rev. Alfonso Jerezano of La Gran Comisión Baptist Church in Morristown, where Alma and her family worship.

Children had their entire lives upended, particularly those like Kimberly living with a single parent. One teenage boy, Raúl, whose mother was detained and sent to Louisiana, had to move to Knoxville before the end of the school year to live with his aunt. Hundreds of undocumented parents signed power-of-attorney forms for nearly 700 children, designating legal guardians in case of their deportation. Alma signed her children over to Jerezano. Should Alma be deported, he and his wife will take care of her children until the family decides what to do — either find someone for the children to live with long-term in the United States or send them to Mexico, a country they don’t know.

Jerezano, a soft-spoken man who wears a jet-black chin-strap beard and his hair spiked with gel, describes the prospect of Alma’s deportation as “devastating.” Still, he considers it the most likely outcome. Although everyone’s case is different, attorneys say it will be difficult for most of the people arrested at Southeastern Provision to remain in the U.S.; having American children is not enough.

Immigrant parents across the country have increasingly been preparing contingency plans for their children, says Megan Finno-Velasquez, director of the Center on Immigration and Child Welfare at New Mexico State University’s School of Social Work. But even arrangements made with relatives or friends are usually only temporary. “That’s a long-term concern that we have: What’s going to happen to a lot of these kids in the long run?” she asks. “Planning does not do anything to mitigate the traumatic impact and the psychological consequences on children of losing a parent.”

October 7, 2018. Morristown, Tennessee. Pastor Alfonso Jerezano chats with his congregation in the doorway of the church after services. After a major ICE raid at the Southeastern Provisions slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN, the latino community in the surrounding area of Morristown and Grainger County has been deeply affected by fear, job loss, and deportations of family members or pending deportation proceedings. (Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone)

Pastor Alfonso Jerezano chats with his congregation in the doorway of the church after services.
Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

In 2007, the Urban Institute released a study of three communities (in Colorado, Nebraska and Massachusetts) a few months after each had experienced a large work-site raid. The authors found the raids had “a wide range of consequences for the entire family,” including poverty, stigma, and emotional trauma for children, “who experience symptoms of depression, separation anxiety and, in extreme cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.” More recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that rising fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities in the U.S. are causing behavioral, mental and psychosomatic problems in children, such as problems sleeping, stomachaches, anxiety and depression.

“Everybody’s really, really concerned right now about these children who are being separated at the border,” says Finno-Velasquez. “But these interior enforcement practices that have been happening for over a decade — and are especially heightened under Trump — are systematically doing just that: continuing to separate children from their parents. The impacts are just the same and just as horrific as what’s happening at the border.”

If Alma were to be deported, Jerezano worries particularly about how the dislocation — either from her mother or from her country — would affect Kimberly. “She gets her strength from her mom,” says Jerezano. “Even if we take legal custody, Kimberly would be the one, in her mind, taking care of her siblings.”

In the weeks since she was arrested, Alma has been preparing Kimberly for that possibility, teaching her how to cook and clean and handle money responsibly. “Since we don’t really know what’s going to happen to Mom, we’re learning to take care of ourselves,” Kimberly says.

In the panic immediately following the raid, Jerezano tells me, he and his wife agreed to be the legal safety net for the children of five other undocumented families in his congregation. “We’ll end up with 20-plus kids if something happens,” he says.

AS LATE AS 1960, the U.S. census recorded a total of zero immigrants living in Hamblen County, where Morristown is located. But in the following decades, migrant workers found seasonal jobs in the region’s tomato fields, and then steadier work in meatpacking plants, on construction crews and in factories — the kind of low-paying, physically punishing labor that few Americans wanted to do.

After meatpacking companies relocated from unionized cities to rural areas with nonunion labor forces during the 1980s, they actively recruited workers from Mexico and Central America, as well as other refugees, and profited handsomely by speeding up production lines, cutting wages and counting on vulnerable workers to keep their mouths shut. “Everyone has turned a blind eye to the hiring of undocumented workers because employers understand they can exploit this vulnerable group,” says Lapointe of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “That’s part of the employer’s calculus.”

In addition to their labor, immigrant workers helped keep alive shrinking towns across the Midwest and Southeast, accounting for the bulk of population and job growth in the rural places young white Americans were fleeing. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 80 percent of all population growth in rural parts of America was due to ethnic and racial minorities. Tennessee’s Hispanic population grew 134 percent during that same decade, faster than all but two other states’.

While many of the immigrants describe Morristown as a tranquil place to live, they haven’t always felt welcome. In 2006, a Hamblen County commissioner led an anti-immigrant rally in front of the city hall; the demonstrators were greeted by police officers due to rumors that the Tennessee Minutemen and Ku Klux Klan might make an appearance. KC Curberson-Alvarado, who works as a guidance counselor in the Hamblen County school district and serves on the board of HOLA Lakeway, says that particularly in the late 1990s, the attitude toward immigrants was “very negative,” and as a result, “people lived in the shadows.” But, over time, as immigrants joined churches and their children entered the school system, the town adjusted.

Today, roughly one-fifth of Morristown’s population is Hispanic. Other foreign workers have come to work for Japanese, German and Belgian manufacturers operating in town. Politically, the area still votes reliably for conservative, anti-immigrant candidates: In 2016, 77 percent of voters in Hamblen County voted for Trump, as did more than 80 percent of voters in Grainger County. Father Steven Pawelk, a Catholic missionary in Grainger County, said that immigration — particularly Trump’s promise to “build the wall” — became a heated topic again during the election within his congregation, which is partly Spanish-speaking. (Fourteen of his parishioners were detained at Southeastern Provision.) “When you’re a small community, the political tension is high,” he says. “2016 was not a fun year to be a pastor.”

Regardless of how white residents felt about immigration in the abstract, the truth was they depended on migrant labor. “They’re not in touch with reality,” says Mary Halliday, a former corrections officer. “Because if they were in touch with reality, they would realize we need these people to pick these tomatoes.” She has squabbled with other members of Pawelk’s congregation over the issue. “Our kids, they don’t want a job of hard labor. We need these people that are willing to work.”

In Grainger and Hamblen counties, the raid threw a wrench into the gears of a smooth-running ideological machine, transforming what had been an abstract debate about immigration into something personal, and vastly more complicated. In the immediate aftermath, many local residents responded generously, helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the affected families and offering help at St. Patrick’s church, where lawyers and other volunteers worked around the clock making meals for traumatized families, comforting children and working on the detainees’ legal cases.

“Everybody runs their mouth and complains, ‘Oh, those Mexicans,’ and all this stuff. But when it came down to the nitty-gritty, they were bringing food and they were bringing diapers,” says Halliday. About 1,000 people attended a prayer vigil at a school gym in Morristown. Information sessions on immigration law were filled largely with white, middle-aged attendees, many of whom were shocked to learn about how difficult it is for migrants to legalize their statuses.

October 7, 2018. Bean Station, Tennessee. The congregation during services at St Patrick's church in Bean Station. After a major ICE raid at the Southeastern Provisions slaughterhouse in Bean Station, TN, the latino community in the surrounding area of Morristown and Grainger County has been deeply affected by fear, job loss, and deportations of family members or pending deportation proceedings. (Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone)

Local churches were transformed into crisis centers after the raid. “Everybody runs their mouth, ‘Oh, those Mexicans,’ but when it came down to the nitty-gritty, they were bringing food and diapers,” says one resident.
Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for Rolling Stone

Gary Chesney, the mayor of Morristown and a lifelong Republican, told me he was proud of how many residents showed support for the immigrant families, but also praised law enforcement for doing its job. “I don’t see it as a contradiction,” Chesney says. “I see it as a capacity.” He acknowledges that the raid did complicate local opinions about immigration. “It’s easy to sit back and scream at the television set and throw out bumper-sticker slogans,” he says. “It involves more focus when things land in our lap. There are many who’ve hollered that we want illegal immigrants gone. At the same time, we don’t think children need to go to bed at night afraid.”

Of course, not everyone’s perspective changed. Grainger County Mayor Mark Hipsher set off a minor local uproar after he spoke with a reporter about the economic impact of the raid and made comments that some people interpreted as sympathetic to the arrested workers. Weeks later, the three-term Republican lost his re-election bid to a primary challenger.

But the raid did have a transformative effect on some conservatives in the community. Wolfe, the newspaper editor, said that she initially felt little sympathy. “I didn’t not want people to be here from other countries, but I didn’t really care,” she tells me one afternoon at a Mexican restaurant she’d suggested in Bean Station, the town closest to Southeastern Provision. “If you do something illegal, I don’t care if you have to face the consequences.” Then she interviewed some of the families who’d been affected, including one 14-year-old girl whose story broke Wolfe’s heart. “All she kept saying, over and over, was ‘He was a good dad,’ ” Wolfe recalls. She wrote a long, wrenching story for the paper, profiling several families. “When it’s right there in your face, and you’re dealing with the actual human being who is suffering, it can change your perspective a little bit,” she says.

Part of the dilemma, Wolfe continues, was that the area pretty much looked the other way when it benefited local businesses. The region is heavily dependent on immigrant labor for its agricultural and manufacturing businesses. (One local Republican politician, whom I’d asked to speak with about the raid, called back weeks later and suggested I expose a political rival who, he claimed, employs undocumented workers.) “There aren’t that many American citizens who want to do that kind of work,” says Wolfe. “Now, I believe we have to have immigration laws, and I believe they have to be enforced. . . . I also think our immigration laws need to be re-examined.”

Weeks after the raid, other members of the community were still struggling to straddle their political ideology and their conviction that what happened to families of Southeastern Provision workers was deeply, morally wrong. “We’re not condoning breaking the law, but on the other hand we’re very confident that our system needs to be fixed,” Betty Shirley, a Methodist minister and registered Republican, said in a long voicemail she left me last spring. “This is not — this is not fair, and it’s not even good. . . . It just doesn’t even make good common sense. There’s got to be a better way to document those folks that are willing to work and want to work and come make a better life for themselves,” she concluded. “You have a blessed day. Goodbye.”

WHEN I VISIT Alberto and Anneth at their home, Anneth is wearing a bracelet embroidered with her name and several hearts woven in silver and black thread. Alberto made it for her in detention, along with many other bracelets and rosary strands, out of empty potato chip bags and the labels from shampoo bottles, which he stretched and twisted into thread. It was something to occupy his time during the month he spent locked up.

They live in a gray trailer south of Morristown that’s been their home since arriving from Mexico in 2003. Coral-hued roses line the walkway leading up to a small porch. Inside, brown couches and an armchair have been pushed against the walls, which they’ve hung with family photos and an image of the Virgin Mary. Two dozen chickens live in a coop out back. Alberto loves animals; he met Anneth in her home state of Sinaloa, where he was studying to be a veterinarian. It was a small irony that the best work he could find in America was helping to butcher them.

Alberto smiles as he recounts the feeling of being freed from detention. He stepped out into the Louisiana air and screamed, he recalls. He has been home barely a week. “We’re like a child with a new toy,” Anneth says — happy, but only because they are distracted. Alberto could still be deported; he’ll have a hearing next year. Anneth is also undocumented, a fact she admits with a small nod of her head, her eyes glued to the floor in front of her. She is afraid of driving, particularly at night, when she can’t see the police cars waiting ahead. With Alberto unable to get a formal job or drive, Anneth is constantly shuttling the kids and her husband around. “I’m his chauffeur,” she jokes. His bond had cost them $6,500. Alberto was trying to make some money fixing cars, but like many other families impacted by the raid, they are mostly relying on financial support from churches and HOLA Lakeway to get by. Their daughter Sherlyn keeps two suitcases packed. If her father leaves again, she’s going with him.

In late May, Yahel drove to Louisiana with her six-year-old son for her husband’s bond hearing, hoping that she’d be able to bring him home with her. She returned to Tennessee without him. They visited him in the detention center but were only allowed to talk through the partition. “It was heartbreaking,” she tells me. The boy was so upset that he couldn’t even speak to his father. He just cried.

A few days later, Yahel sits on the porch of her faded yellow trailer looking out over the green, undulating farmland. She wears her hair pulled back into a low ponytail, her young face bare of makeup. While we talk, she lays her youngest son across her lap and rubs his head. Her husband missed the boy’s first birthday. “It kills us,” she says. “He’s starting to walk, and he’s not here. He’s missing all the things in his life and knows he won’t be able to see them again.”

In July, Yahel’s husband was deported to Mexico. Sixteen others have also been deported, including her stepfather, and four remained in detention as of mid-November. One of the arrested workers, a diabetic, went blind in his left eye while he was locked up. He and everyone else, including Alberto and Alma, have open deportation cases. Due to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases in immigration courts, most will have to wait until next year or even 2020 for resolution. In the meantime, the raid “remains like a shadow” over their families, says Pawelk, the missionary. “It’s like the air has been sucked out of them. It’s very hard for them to have a sense of joy.” Because of the rapid and sustained response from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Coalition and local faith leaders, however, most have been able to obtain lawyers. Court appointments occur in Memphis, a seven-hour commute from Morristown, and TIRCC is also working to provide drivers and gas money.

Since 2016, the number of deportation orders issued by the immigration court in Memphis has risen nearly 50 percent — in part because of policy changes made by Sessions that ended immigration judges’ ability to close cases administratively, which effectively granted a reprieve from deportation. People like Alma and Alberto who’ve been in the U.S. for at least 10 years may be able to petition for “cancellation of removal,” but eligibility requirements are incredibly strict. Nationwide, immigration judges are allowed to approve only 4,000 cancellations each year.

The midterm elections ignited a new round of anti-immigrant hysteria in Tennessee, where Republican Senator-elect Marsha Blackburn warned that without a border wall, “every state is a border state and every town is a border town.” Those kinds of statements rile up Shirley, the Methodist minister. “They keep talking about all this crime and all this stuff, and we just have not experienced any of that,” she says in November. Instead, according to Shirley, the area is experiencing a labor shortage. She’s noticed several factories in the area with seemingly permanent help wanted signs, and recently spoke with a restaurant owner who told her they’d shortened their hours because they didn’t have enough staff.

“It’s a very strange time,” Shirley says. “Everybody wants to draw a big salary, and few people want to work” — except for immigrants. “Had the owner of the slaughterhouse paid his taxes and done the right thing, it would not have brought this house of cards down.”

In August, federal prosecutors filed charges against James Brantley, and he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, wire fraud and employing unauthorized immigrants. In addition, the state fined him more than $40,000 for 27 labor violations. Brantley faces up to 25 years in prison, though he’ll likely serve far less. For now, he is free on bond. “I can’t help but note the irony,” said U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer during Brantley’s plea hearing. “Many of these people were initially held without bond,” he said, referring to the employees who’d been detained. “Most of them have already served a period of four to six months in jail they most likely would not have served.”

Alma found no comfort in Brantley’s guilty plea. She recently got a job in a restaurant that didn’t require her to submit any paperwork. She works in the kitchen and as a waitress, making less than she did at the slaughterhouse. She’s noticed changes in her children: Fear and resentment have crept into their sunny personalities. They become particularly frantic when it comes time for her regular check-ins with immigration authorities in Knoxville. Those trips, Alma says, are “like reliving it all over again.”

Alma, as well as several other workers arrested with her, described the raid as a kind of theft. It robbed them of things that, regardless of what the courts decide, will be difficult to restore: a sense of security, plans for the future, the feeling of belonging. In November, I ask Alma if she’s ever able to forget about what happened — if there are moments when things feel normal. “I don’t think this is something I’ll ever be able to overcome,” she says. Her voice breaks, and then she catches herself. “All I can think about is, ‘Where are my kids going to go?’ Before, we lived peacefully. Now it’s all falling apart.”

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