ICE Came for a Tennessee Town’s Immigrants. The Town Fought Back.
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — One morning in April, federal immigration agents swept into a meatpacking plant in this northeastern Tennessee manufacturing town, launching one of the biggest workplace raids since President Trump took office with a pledge to crack down on illegal immigration.
Dozens of panicked workers fled in every direction, some wedging themselves between beef carcasses or crouching under bloody butcher tables. About 100 workers, including at least one American citizen, were rounded up — every Latino employee at the plant, it turned out, save a man who had hidden in a freezer.
The raid occurred in a state that is on the raw front lines of the immigration debate. Mr. Trump won 61 percent of the vote in Tennessee, and continues to enjoy wide popularity. The state’s rapidly growing immigrant population, now estimated to total more than 320,000, has become a favorite target of the Republican-controlled State Legislature. In 2017, Tennessee lawmakers passed the nation’s first law requiring stiffer sentences for defendants who are in the country illegally. In April, they passed a law requiring the police to help enforce immigration laws and making it illegal for local governments to adopt so-called sanctuary policies.
But Morristown, a town of 30,000 northeast of Knoxville that was the boyhood home of Davy Crockett, has drawn migrant workers from Latin America since the early 1990s, when they first came to work on the region’s abundant tomato farms. As stepped-up security has made going back and forth across the border more difficult, many of these families have settled into the community, enrolled their kids in school, and joined churches where they have baptized their American-born children.
So the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Southeastern Provision plant outside the city and sent dozens of workers to out-of-state detention centers was the day people in Morristown began to ask questions many hadn’t thought through before — to the federal government, to the police, to their church leaders, to each other.
Donations of food, clothing and toys for families of the workers streamed in at such volume there was a traffic jam to get into the parking lot of a church. Professors at the college extended a speaking invitation to a young man whose brother and uncle were detained in the raid. Schoolteachers cried as they tried to comfort students whose parents were suddenly gone. There was standing room only at a prayer vigil that drew about 1,000 people to a school gym.
Here, based on interviews with dozens of workers and townspeople, and in their own words (some edited for length and clarity), is how it happened.
The April 5 operation signaled a return to the high-profile immigration raids that last happened during the presidency of George W. Bush. President Barack Obama’s chief workplace enforcement tactic was to conduct payroll audits and impose fines on businesses found to employ unauthorized workers. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has vowed to quintuple worksite enforcement. Last week, ICE agents arrested 114 employees at two worksites operated by a gardening company in Ohio.
All 97 workers taken into custody in the Tennessee raid now face deportation, though several have been released pending hearings. And much of the town is reeling. Up to 160 American-born children have a parent who could soon be ordered to leave the country; many families are relying on handouts.
After the raid, immigrant advocates organized a peace march, and Nataly carried a sign bearing the image of her father, a native of Mexico who had been working in the United States without papers for 20 years before he was taken into custody at the meat plant that day. “We Miss You,” the sign read. “We need you by our side. You are the best father.”
Nestled between two mountain ranges and flanked by two large lakes, Morristown is the county seat and industrial hub of Hamblen County, where most of the plant workers’ families reside.
The Latinos who arrived here, especially those who came after the late 1990s, were part of a swelling wave of migrants bypassing traditional gateway states like California and Texas to seek opportunity in the fast-growing South. Word reached their villages that jobs were plentiful.
More recently, as with other places, Tennessee has been struggling with a meth and opioid epidemic. As drug abuse has sidelined many working-age American men and women, local employers have increasingly turned to immigrants.
These days, Latinos make up about 11 percent of Hamblen County’s population and account for one of every four students in its public schools. Immigrants toil in meat, poultry and canning plants, as well as at automotive parts, plastics and other factories that dot the area.
Not everyone in town has been welcoming, though. One theme many expressed: The workers were lawbreakers who got caught. In the parking lot of the local Walmart, where several people were talking about the raid at the meat plant, one woman said it could open up employment opportunities. But not everyone agreed with her.
Undocumented workers from Mexico and Guatemala formed the backbone of the work force at Southeastern Provision, located 10 miles north of Morristown in the town of Bean Station. They killed, skinned, decapitated and cut up cattle whose parts were used for, among other things, oxtail soup and a cured meat snack exported to Africa.
Immigrants were critical to the family-owned abattoir’s growth over the last decade. Many of those affected by the raid, fearing further action from the authorities, spoke on the condition that only their first names be used.
With the $11.50 hourly wage that her husband, Tomas, made at the plant and the $9 she earns as a seamstress, Elisabeth and her family could afford the $700 rent for a house big enough to accommodate their six children, three from her previous marriage, and live a relatively stable life, she said. To be sure, the work was heavy, gory and low-paying. Day after day, the workers endured the smell of manure, blood and flesh. But Southeastern Provision offered a major advantage over other businesses: The management, several workers said, didn’t seem to expect them to bother with fake work authorization documents.
Federal authorities said there was evidence that the company had run afoul of the law. In an affidavit, the Internal Revenue Service said the company had withdrawn millions of dollars in cash and told bank employees the money was needed to pay “Hispanics”— suggesting that the company knew it was hiring undocumented workers and evaded payment of federal employment taxes.
An informant hired at the plant in 2017 told investigators that workers felt they couldn’t complain about poor working conditions because of their immigration status. Some had to work unpaid overtime, the informant reported. He said he saw others required to work with “extremely harsh” chemicals without protective eyewear.
No charges have been filed against the company. A federal criminal investigation is ongoing, said Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman. The owner, James Brantley, said he couldn’t talk about the case. His lawyer, Norman McKellar, also declined to comment. “We are in a difficult situation,” he said.
It was just after 9 a.m., about two hours after more than 100 workers had arrived for the 7 a.m. shift, when shouts of “inmigración, inmigración” rang out across the plant.
Alma went numb. In the cutting line, another worker, Raymunda, put down the butcher’s knife she was holding and raced toward an exit. So did dozens of others, their blood-smeared smocks and protective aprons weighing them down. They soon realized that ICE agents, backed by state law enforcement, blocked every door.
Agents cornered and grabbed workers, sometimes barking “Calma!” in Spanish to those who cried and screamed. Some workers reported that agents pointed guns at them to stop them from fleeing. “I stuck myself between the cows,” Raymunda said. It was to no avail.
Within minutes, all the Latinos at the plant were rounded up, including at least one American citizen and several other people who had legal authorization to work.
Immigrants who were lined up, many of them crying, tried to give the woman messages to pass to their loved ones, because they knew she was an American and, therefore, likely to be freed.
In groups of about a dozen, according to several workers interviewed, Latinos were placed mainly in plastic handcuffs, escorted to white vans with tinted windows and transported to a National Guard Armory. A helicopter hovered above.
Word began to spread that “la migra,” as ICE is known, was in the area. Panicked immigrants walked off the job at other companies in the region and frantically texted each other.
Ms. Galvan described how she arrived to a crowd amassed behind yellow police tape surrounding the armory, as state troopers stood guard. Relatives of plant workers were crying and obsessively checking their cellphones for news.
Inside, workers said they waited hours to be interviewed and fingerprinted by agents, a process delayed by computer glitches. When agents asked women who had young children to identify themselves, virtually every hand went up.
By late afternoon, agents had released only a handful of people, mainly those in frail health or who had proven they had the legal right to work in the United States.
In the evening, Johnny headed to the armory with his father and 7-year-old sister, Brittany, who was weeping. They brought insulin injections to be delivered to his mother, who is diabetic.
Families were gathering in an elementary school across from the armory. By nightfall, about 100 people, including teachers, clergy, lawyers and other community members had assembled. Volunteers distributed pizza, tamales and drinks.
As the night wore on, about 30 of the detainees, including Raymunda and Alma, were gradually released.
A little after 1 a.m., the agents announced that no one else would be let go. Workers still in detention — 54 in all — were put on buses to Alabama and then Louisiana.
St. Patrick Catholic Church’s parish center was converted into a crisis response center. All day, people arrived with food, clothing, toys and supplies for the affected families. At one point, six trucks waited to unload donations.
Volunteers, who showed up by the dozens, received color-coded tags: Yellow for teachers, white for lawyers, and pink for general helpers, who prepared meals in the kitchen, packed grocery bags and performed other tasks.
Bleary-eyed immigrants packed the main room. In smaller rooms, teachers entertained children with stories while their parents received legal services.
On Topix , a community website where comments are posted anonymously, one person asked, “Why does St. Patrick Catholic Church support law breakers?”
Another person wrote, “This bust is legal, the people are illegals. Why the big sympathy case? I don’t get it.”
Still, a couple of days later, “we had more volunteers than we knew what to do with. We had to turn people away,” Ms. Jacobs said.
At a news conference, faith leaders and Elisabeth, surrounded by her sons, pleaded for the community to pray for the immigrants.
Hundreds of children missed school after the raid. On the evening of April 7, about 120 teachers and school staff packed the church’s basement to talk about how to assist students. On a poster board, they scrawled their feelings. “I cried Thursday night wondering which of my students were without parents that night,” one teacher wrote. “I feel helpless,” wrote another.
On Monday, three days after the raid, a prayer vigil at Hillcrest Elementary School drew nearly 1,000 people who sat in the bleachers, in folding chairs on the court and, when the chairs ran out, they stood along the walls. A 16-year-old named Ramon stood up to speak.
Two nights later, St. Patrick Church’s center still brimmed with activity as immigrants and supporters gathered to make posters and banners for a procession through downtown Morristown. Ms. Smith brought her 8-year-old daughter, Laurel, figuring it was an important lesson. “This community is a snapshot of the dissonance of America on immigration,” Ms. Smith said.
At Walters State Community College, instructors gathered in an auditorium to hear Jehova Arzola, 20, an engineering honors student whose brother and uncle were detained, describe his family’s ordeal. No one knew when, or if, they would see them again, he said.
On Thursday, a week after the raid, about 300 people took to Morristown’s downtown streets in the evening to draw attention to the plight of the families. Some people, like Colin Loring and his partner, Margaret Durgin, drove for an hour to participate.
“We are here to support our immigrant neighbors. The system needs to be fixed,” said Mr. Loring, who is retired from the United States Department of Agriculture. Ms. Durgin arrived with a $540 check to help the immigrants.
Before setting out, a nun led the marchers, who wore white and clutched white flowers, in prayer. “We love Morristown. We are here to send a message of love and unity,” they chanted before heading down Main Street. Along the way, a driver shouted an expletive at the crowd from inside his brown truck and sped off.
Pulling to the front of the line was Raymunda, her youngest children, Johnny, 15, and Brittany, 7, by her side. She said she had a notice to appear in court for deportation proceedings.