Monday, June 11, 2018

ICE raid on rural Tennessee meatpacking plant prompts locals to question U.S. and state immigration policies

300 marched, reported the Morristown Citizen Tribune (CT photo)
An immigration raid at a meatpacking plant in rural Tennessee has prompted locals to question more deeply our nation's current immigration policy. Anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in Tennessee: President Trump carried 61 percent of the vote and is still popular, and the Republican-controlled state legislature has passed at least two laws aimed at cracking down on the rapidly expanding state population of undocumented immigrants.

But in Morristown, 40 miles northeast of Knoxville, migrant workers have a considerable presence in the town of 30,000. They've been coming ther since the early 1990s, and began staying when increased border security made it more dangerous to head home at the end of a season and try to return for then next one, Miriam Jordan reports for The New York Times. They've been a much-needed addition to the local workforce, as drugs and disability have rendered many Americans unsuitable for hiring, and make up about 11 percent of Hamblen County's population.

So when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided the Southeastern Provision plant in nearby Bean Station on April 5 and arrested 97 (almost every Latino employee, including at least one American citizen), donations of food, clothing and toys for the families of the workers poured in, and a prayer vigil drew about 1,000 people. Immigration advocates organized a peace march. Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told Jordan that the workers have shouldered all the consequences of their employer's violations. "ICE could have decided to audit this employer, and forced him to pay fines and correct his practices. Instead they conducted a raid that left over 160 children without a parent from one day to the next." No charges have been filed against Southeastern Provision, though an ICE spokesperson said a federal criminal investigation is ongoing.

Marshall Ramsey, president of the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce, told Jordan: "We don’t get into immigration issues. As long as they are pulling their weight as workers, that is what we appreciate. We’re very proud of our diverse heritage. My wife is actually a seventh-grade schoolteacher here in town and about 50 percent of her class is Hispanic. She raves about parent-teacher conferences. The parents show up. The kids know that the parents have high expectations of them. The parents feel like the kids have been given an opportunity."

"Not everyone in town has been welcoming, though," Jordan reports. "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."

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