Daniella Silva, NBC News, May 8, 2018
Every day for the last month, Aneth’s 3-year-old daughter has asked her the same question: “When is Daddy coming home?” She searches every room in the house for him and wonders why he wasn’t there for her birthday. Aneth cannot bring herself to tell her youngest child that her father was detained by immigration authorities in what advocates say was the biggest workplace raid in a decade.
It’s been more than a month since Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detained 97 people at a meatpacking plant in eastern Tennessee, upending dozens of families and leaving many fearful of what could come next.
“We used to do everything together,” Aneth said of her husband of 15 years.
The raid appeared to be part of ICE’s recent efforts to step up enforcement of immigration laws in workplaces.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned the raid in a speech on Tuesday, saying that he wasn’t “shedding tears” over it.
“You don’t get to gain a competitive advantage in this country by having large numbers of illegal workers working for you so I’m not shedding tears about that,” he said in remarks at the Gatlinburg Law Enforcement Training Conference in Tennessee.
Hundreds of people gathered at a church in the days after the raid, desperately trying to find their family members. Nearly 600 children from the district missed school as fear spread through the tight-knit immigrant community when it became clear that dozens of fathers, mothers, siblings, sons and daughters weren’t coming home.
In October, Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, said he had ordered agents to increase workplace enforcement actions “by four to five times.”
“We are taking worksite enforcement very hard this year,” Homan, who recently announced that he plans to retire, said in a speech. He added that ICE was going to both prosecute employers who knowingly hire people who are not legally allowed to work in the U.S. and deport those workers.
In January, immigration agents raided nearly 100 7-Eleven stores nationwide and arrested 21 people in what was then the biggest crackdown on a company since President Donald Trump took office.
On April 5, ICE’s sweep came to Tennessee. ICE executed a search warrant at Southeastern Provision, a meat processing plant in Bean Station, according to Bryan Cox, spokesman for ICE’s southern region. ICE said it found 97 people at the site who were subject to deportation from the U.S.
Court documents show the plant was under investigation on charges of evading taxes, filing false federal tax returns and hiring immigrants who are not legally allowed to work in the U.S. Calls left at Southeastern Provision for comment were not returned. The plant’s owners have not been charged.
Hahn said she believed that the way ICE carried out the surprise raid was meant to intimidate workers. Advocates said a helicopter hovered over the plant that morning, and authorities blocked off the street outside.
Asked about ICE’s tactics during the raid, spokesman Cox said, “I suspect most persons who violate federal law and are arrested for doing so wish they hadn’t been.”
He added, “ICE will not turn a blind eye to persons it encounters who are in violation of federal immigration law.”
Marce, 42, a stay-at-home mom in Morristown who said she had several family members detained in the Tennessee raid, was in complete shock when she heard ICE “took everyone.”
“I was so scared, I felt impotent, my legs were shaking,” said Marce, who also asked that her last name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety. Among those detained and held in Louisiana was Marce’s brother, Ponciano, 50. Marce said her brother helped found a soccer league for children and adults in their community and that he helped raise her three children.
“Our lives were soccer and church,” she said. “He was the head of our family — the family needs him. The community needs him.”
“After that day, we’re affected emotionally,” she said, her voice breaking. “We’re separated — they broke us, they took our confidence.”