New Yorker (Opinion)
By Jonathan Blitzer
April 19, 2018
In Rural Tennessee, a Big ICE Raid Makes Some Conservative Voters Rethink Trump’s Immigration Agenda
April 5th began in the usual way at the Southeastern Provision meat-processing plant, in Bean Station, Tennessee—some workers were breaking down carcasses on the production line, while others cleaned the floors—until, around 9 A.M., a helicopter began circling above the plant. Moments later, a fleet of cars pulled up outside. Agents from the I.R.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Tennessee Highway Patrol emerged, and proceeded to arrest ninety-seven people, most of them originally from Mexico or Guatemala, for working without legal papers. It was the largest workplace roundup of immigrants in a decade.
Bean Station is a sleepy lakeside town of three thousand people in eastern Tennessee. The Southeastern Provision plant—located just off the main roadway, past cattle farms and clapboard churches—is made up of a string of dilapidated barn buildings, but it is the third-largest business in Grainger County. Two hundred and fifty head of cattle pass through the plant each day, which translates to roughly thirty million dollars of business every year. After the raid, the I.R.S. said in a court filing that many workers there typically make less than minimum wage, and that the agency believes the owners of the plant, headed by a man named James Brantley, owe the government millions of dollars in back taxes. But neither Brantley nor any of the other owners of the business were arrested on April 5th. (Lawyers for the plant owners could not be reached for comment.) Of the ninety-seven people taken into custody, ten are facing federal criminal charges relating to past immigration violations, and one is facing state criminal charges. The remaining eighty-six people were placed in deportation proceedings. Thirty-two of these people were released on the day of the raid—allowed to return to their families and sleep at home as their cases work through the system—but fifty-four were kept in detention, and many were soon moved to facilities out of state.
Most of the people who were arrested lived not in Bean Station but in a town called Morristown, part of Hamblen County, about ten miles to the south. In Morristown, a larger town of thirty thousand people, the raid was catastrophic news. Families’ worst fear had come true: husbands, fathers, wives, mothers—gone. The following day, more than five hundred students were reported absent from area schools, kept home out of a combination of fear, anxiety, and confusion. The raid also set off a whirl of activity, as relatives of those arrested gathered each day at a church in the center of town to meet with advocacy groups and discuss their legal options.
This past weekend, I traveled to Morristown to talk to the families affected by the raid and also to observe how the wider community was responding. While Hamblen County is home to a sizable immigrant community from Central America—11.5 per cent of its population is Hispanic, more than twice the state average—it’s also a deeply conservative place. In 2016, seventy-seven per cent of the county voted for Donald Trump. Yet in the two weeks since the raid, Morristown residents have helped raise sixty thousand dollars to help families with relatives in detention. A vigil was held in support of the families of those arrested, and volunteers from local schools, churches, and businesses had been distributing food and coördinating other forms of assistance. For many people in town, the raid exposed the human costs of the political fight over immigration policy.
“Immigration is kind of a hot-button topic here,” Hank Smith, a fifty-year-old salesman from Morristown, told me. “Some people feel like immigrants are taking our jobs, that they’re not paying their taxes. But others are more sympathetic.” Smith counts himself among the latter group. “I’m a Christian; God loves everybody equally. And I never had a problem with anyone being here,” he said. Nevertheless, in 2016, Smith voted for Trump. He had been mostly indifferent to Trump’s anti-immigrant invective on the campaign trail; the rhetoric didn’t resonate with him personally, but it didn’t alienate him, either. “My kids were getting to an age where they’d be going to work, so the economy was the major issue for my family,” he told me. “It’s the things that affect us the most that we vote on. And immigration didn’t really affect me before. But then this raid happened.”
After Trump took office, ICE announced that it planned to quadruple the number of workplace inspections it conducts. In January, the agency launched stings at ninety-eight 7-Eleven franchises in seventeen states. Smith hadn’t noticed those. But when the arrests happened closer to home, he was immediately struck by the fact that many of the people who’d been picked up had lived in the area for more than a decade. He knew people like them, he told me—“they work hard and they do the jobs that no one else wants to do.” He also felt strong sympathy for their kids. Smith said, “I felt I understood the legal side of it. But this is the first time I really started looking at the human side. Families are being divided.”
Smith and I had met through his pastor, David Williams, who leads the Hillcrest Baptist Church—a large, pale-brick building on the eastern edge of downtown Morristown, across the street from the elementary school where the vigil was held. Most of Hillcrest’s congregants are white—the town’s immigrant community tends to gravitate to St. Patrick, the Catholic church a few miles down the road—but Williams has been among the most vocal members of the local clergy in calling for solidarity with the families affected by the raid. “I look at this from a humanitarian perspective,” he told me. “You cannot be a true Christian if you ignore your neighbor in need.” Some of his parishioners dislike his outspokenness, but not all of them. “The people in the middle have had their hearts soften because of the raid,” he said.
Morristown is close-knit, politically conservative, and religious—and in recent years, it’s been growing more diverse. The town has become a regional manufacturing hub, home to plants belonging to Japanese, German, and Belgian companies. Immigrants from Central America began to trickle in during the nineteen-eighties as seasonal workers at tomato farms, and the influx increased as they began staying in the area year-round to work at chicken-processing plants nearby.
One morning, I met with Morristown’s Mayor, Gary Chesney, a self-described “lifelong Republican of the Reagan variety,” in his office at a commercial insurance company. (Being mayor in Morristown is a part-time job.) Chesney had heard that an undercover I.R.S. agent had been working at Southeastern Provision to scope out the conditions before the raid, and that the agent had asked some of the undocumented workers at the plant why they’d taken jobs in Bean Station if they lived in Morristown. “They said, ‘We’re here because we can’t get jobs in Morristown,’ ” Chesney said. “I was proud of that. We’ve been following the rules and guidelines here. But the innocent victims were the kids whose parents were picked up. I was also proud that our locals took care of the innocent folks.” Chesney didn’t see a contradiction in these two sources of pride; he stressed the town’s capacity both for conservatism and for reasonableness. National politics had further intensified the local conversation about immigration, he said—everyone knew that there were many Morristown residents who were anti-immigrant, and whose views remained the same after the raid—but he believed some of the acrimony stemmed from misinformation about how the undocumented were “gaming the system” or committing crimes. Chesney said, “We all get a little bit smarter as the issue gets more personal.”
My first night in Morristown, I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. A family—a couple with two young kids—was sitting in the booth next to mine, and before the parents paid their check, they flagged down their waitress with a question. “We’re trying to figure out who’s right,” the husband—who was white, bearded, and looked to be about forty—told her. “Is it ‘estoy cansado’ or ‘soy cansado?’ ” Laughing, the waitress replied in accented English, and a conversation ensued about the grammatical differences between the two Spanish forms of the verb “to be.” As the family left, I approached the man and asked him for his thoughts on the recent raid. “Terrible stuff,” he said. He felt for the families. But he did have one reservation about the community’s response. “It’s great that everyone’s pulling together to help. But what about the citizens here who need help? Are they getting it, too?”
On Sunday afternoon, thirty people gathered in the chapel of St. Patrick church for an information session that had been advertised with flyers that read, “Immigration Law Explained for the Rest of Us.” The church’s pastor had asked Stephanie Teatro, the co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, an advocacy group from Nashville that had been coördinating legal services for the immigrant families in Morristown, to hold the meeting in order to field questions from parishioners. Attendees, most of them white and middle-aged, sat attentively in the pews and took notes. “Did anyone here move to Morristown from somewhere else?” Teatro asked. A majority of the parishioners raised their hands. Teatro encouraged them to call out the reasons they’d moved to the town—“for work,” one person shouted. “To raise a family,” another said. “The immigrant community has come for the same reason, it’s just that they have maybe come from a slightly farther distance,” Teatro said.
The hourlong session covered technical topics, such as the dearth of work visas issued by the federal government each year and the administrative difficulties of getting legalized as an immigrant. People gasped audibly when Teatro explained that it could take more than twenty years for Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. to sponsor family members to come to the country legally. A man sitting next to me leaned over to commiserate. “I didn’t realize it was so hard,” he whispered.
One woman in attendance was a forty-three-year-old named Deborah, who described herself to me as a conservative voter. “The voting options seem kind of narrow,” she said. “I wish it were easier to pick and choose positions from both parties.” She and her husband had moved to Morristown from Illinois a few years ago. “My thoughts on immigration were very different before coming here,” she said. Where she lived in Illinois, the churches had been more segregated. In Morristown, though, she interacted with immigrants often at St. Patrick. “In the past, in my heart, I wanted to support these people, but in my mind I also knew they weren’t all here legally,” she said. After the raid, she had no doubts about wanting to help—she saw it as a Christian imperative. She also decided to educate herself about immigration policy. “I never understood all the technicalities of what it takes to become a legalized resident. How can I judge what I don’t understand?”
Hank Smith still supports the President, and even welcomes some of his most contentious ideas, such as the border wall. But when he hears politicians talk about the “problem of immigration,” he told me, he no longer sees it as a question of how to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S. but, rather, of how to create avenues for them to come legally. “Maybe the wall is part of the broader process,” he said. “If we see that a wall is working, we need to see a policy to get people in here legally. It’s not going to be fixed overnight, but I want to see the President take a hard look at all this.” At the moment, there are two anti-immigrant bills moving rapidly through the Tennessee legislature. One of them would disallow a form of identification—called “consular I.D.s”—that most Mexican immigrants use in lieu of state driver’s licenses, for which they can’t qualify in Tennessee; the other would impose penalties on towns that pursue sanctuary policies. Smith told me he hadn’t known about the first bill, but that he was incensed by the second. “The sanctuary-city bill is just awful,” he said. “It’ll divide the state. We should be trying to come together.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com