Hamblen County, Tennessee, has entered a new era, the one that began after the immigration raid on Thursday, April 5.
In the early morning of that day, dozens of law enforcement agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, and local police stormed all entrances of the Southeastern Provisions meatpacking plant perched on a hill in the mostly rural town of Bean Station, TN. With roads blocked off and a helicopter hovering overhead, ICE agents removed about 100 people, suspected of being undocumented, and took them to a nearby National Guard armory for questioning.
It was the largest workplace raid since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, vowing to crack down on illegal immigration. Last October, ICE Director Tom Homan announced a new push to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Homan said the goal was to eliminate the “magnet” drawing undocumented workers to the U.S.
In east Tennessee, word spread quickly through the community, including nearby Morristown, Hamblen’s county seat, where many of the workers and their families live. That day and the next, Morristown residents say, it was as if the Hispanic population was on lockdown.
“The worst part was the rumors,” said John Gullion, editor of the local newspaper, the Citizen Tribune. He said he “got rumors of every factory in town” being raided. In fact, the only raid taking place was at the meat processing plant in Bean Station, just over the line in Grainger County.
A town of 29,000, Morristown was previously a sleepy, insular city in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. But in the past two decades, new industries have brought jobs and growth. Earlier this month, a Belgian bus manufacturing company announced plans to open a plant in the area.
With the new jobs have come new workers. Between the censuses of 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population in the area nearly doubled as workers came to take jobs at a new poultry-processing plant, auto-parts manufacturers, and furniture companies. Hispanics now make up nearly 21 percent of Morristown’s population.
The influx brought new tensions among community members, as the mostly-white population adjusted to a growing Hispanic population in its midst.
But with the raid, came solidarity.
An employee at a local staffing agency said the agency’s office was dead quiet that Thursday afternoon, at a time when it was usually bustling with Hispanic workers coming in and out. Teachers and other school staff members rode buses home with Hispanic students to make sure their students weren’t coming home to empty houses.
Meanwhile, friends and families of the detainees gathered across the road from the armory, filling the parking lot of a local pizza joint for hours, some remaining until 3 a.m. for word of their loved ones.
KC Curberson-Alvarado, head of local Latino interest group HOLA Lakeway, heard about the raid around midmorning, an hour or two after it happened. She contacted a statewide immigration rights group for legal aid and then set up operations at the national guard armory, helping family members get information and provide documentation and, in some cases, medicines for their loved ones in custody.
“We’re still conducting interviews with workers who were released to learn exactly what happened,” said Stephanie Teatro of the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition, talking about sorting out the details of the raid. While more than 100 are believed to have been rounded up and taken to the armory, she said, 97 were formally arrested and charged. Of those, 54 have been placed in ICE detention centers in Louisiana and Alabama. Thirty-two were released, but will still have to fight deportation in court.
“It’s just a matter of whether they can fight here with their family,” Teatro said, “or in a detention center in Louisiana” where the Southern Poverty Law Center is aiding the detainees with bond hearings and legal defense. Teatro said it can cost thousands of dollars for the detainees to obtain release from the ICE facilities.
Meanwhile, some of the families of the detainees are struggling to make ends meet, in many cases having lost their breadwinner.
My heart, ‘shattered’
Beatriz’s uncle is one of 11 detainees held at the ICE immigration facility in Louisiana. On the day of the raid, she said, her father called her while she was in class at the local community college. He told her that some detainees had been taken to the armory.
“It just felt like my heart shattered,” Beatriz said. “I didn’t know what was going on.” Her dad didn’t know much either. “He just heard it from the news, because obviously our family members couldn’t contact us.”
Beatriz, a U.S. citizen, grew up in Morristown as part of an immigrant family originally from Mexico. Because of her family’s situation, the 18-year-old community college student prefers not to use her last name.
Following her dad’s direction, Beatriz drove to the armory, where she was turned away when she tried to see her family members. She waited across the street, along with crowds of others, for news. In the wee hours of Friday morning, Beatriz’s aunt was released – one of the last few to be set free. But her uncle never came out.
Since then, Beatriz’s aunt has been caring for her seven-year-old son with the help of her family. But when he asks when his dad is coming home, nobody has the answer.
‘Relationships change everything’
Seventy-seven percent of Hamblen Count citizens voted for Trump in the last presidential election. Commenters on the local paper’s Facebook page have aired their frustration over illegal immigration. “Great work,” said Carolyn Gilliam of Morristown. “Don’t forget to send their kids with them.”
“I’m sure there are hundreds of others that need to be deported,” said Trista Shaver, also of Morristown. “Hopefully they keep up the good work! And prosecute anyone who is illegally hiring them to work.”
“If they’re here illegally then they should be deported. No matter what.” said Matthew Gilbert of Rogersville, Tennessee.
But Gullion, the Citizen Tribune editor, said most of the anti-immigration rhetoric has been confined to social media, where “one person says it, and you get the Hallelujah Chorus,” he jokes wryly.
While the community is conservative, he said, it is also deeply humane. “I have been surprised by how many . . . people have expressed sympathy for the children or expressed that whatever way this was done was wrong.”
Curberson-Alvarado, in the thick of the group grieving for its lost members, is similarly grateful for the community response, and even that of the government agents who conducted the raid. “I will not demonize ICE,” she said. She allows that she doesn’t know what conditions were like during the raid itself, but commended ICE agents on how they allowed her group to act as go-betweens for the detainees and their families at the armory. “If this could be cordial, they were cordial.”
Meanwhile, the same community that voted overwhelmingly for Trump and his promised crackdown on illegal immigration has provided $60,000 to the affected families, many of whom have lost their principal source of income. They donated truckloads of diapers, hygiene items, and food, Curberson-Alvarado said. Teachers showed up at a couple hours’ notice for a workshop on how to help the students affected by the roundup.
Many of the longtime Morristown residents “vote Republican, they’re very conservative, but they understand this thing doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Relationships change everything.”
Even though she has citizenship, she said the shock of April 5 has planted a seed of fear that will not go away. She says she worries all the time that she’ll come home and find that something else catastrophic has happened to her family.
Her uncle remains jailed, along with dozens of other people she has known for years.
“All we do is pray to God for something good,” she said.