By Mario Ritter
02 May, 2018

Early on the morning of April 5, United States law enforcement officials raided a meat processing factory in the state of Tennessee.

Agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) led the raid on the Southeastern Provisions meatpacking plant in the town of Bean Station. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police assisted in the operation.

Officials believed that illegal immigrants were working at the plant. ICE agents removed about 100 people. They were suspected of being foreign citizens without documentation to work in the U.S. The group was taken to a local National Guard armory for questioning.

Large workplace action

The raid was the largest workplace action yet since Donald Trump became U.S. president. When he was a presidential candidate, Trump promised to reduce illegal immigration.

Thomas Homan is the director of ICE. Last October, he announced a campaign against employers who offer employment to illegal immigrants. He said the goal was to stop what he called the "magnet" attracting illegal immigrants to the U.S.

Morristown residents hold poster that says
Morristown residents hold poster that says "Stop Deporting Families". (Photo: Marissa Melton / VOA)

News of the raid spread throughout the area, including the nearby town of Morristown, Tennessee. Many of the factory's workers live in Morristown.

John Gullion heads the local newspaper, the Citizen Tribune. He said the raid caused some people to share unconfirmed stories. "The worst part was the rumors," Gullion said. He added that some people said every factory in town was raided. In fact, the only raid that took place was at the meatpacking plant in Bean Station, which is in another county.

About 29,000 people live in Morristown, which is a short drive from the Great Smoky Mountains. Over the past 20 years, new industries have brought jobs and growth to the area. In April, a Belgian bus manufacturer announced plans to open a factory there.

New workers also are arriving. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew to 21 percent. They have taken jobs in meatpacking, with automobile parts manufacturers and furniture companies.

However, the new arrivals brought new tensions with people already living in Morristown.

A few days after the raid, a local employment agency was very quiet when normally the service would be busy.

Teachers and other school workers rode buses home with Hispanic students to make sure they were not going home to empty homes.

Friends and family members of those detained gathered near the local armory.

KC Curberson-Alvarado is the head of HOLA Lakeway, an activist group for Latino people. She heard about the raid and contacted an immigration rights group for legal assistance.

She also set up efforts to help family members with information and documents and, in some cases, to get medicine for those being held.

Stephanie Teatro is with the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Right Coalition. She says her group found that 97 people were arrested and charged after the raid on the factory. Of those, she said, 54 had been sent to ICE detention centers in the states of Louisiana and Alabama. Thirty-two were released but are required to appear in court for hearings on whether they can stay in the country.

One woman, who identified herself as Beatriz and who did not want to give her family name, has an uncle who is being held in Louisiana. Another family member was among those who were detained but later released.

After the raid took place, there was a push to get more information. "I didn't know what was going on," she said.

A mix of support and concern about the raid

People in Hamblen County expressed support for the raid and disapproval of illegal immigration on the local paper's Facebook page.

But John Gullion of the Citizen Tribune said the strongest opinions appear mainly on social media. He said the community is conservative. Many Hamblen County voters supported Trump in the 2016 elections.

Gullion added that the community also is deeply humane.

"I have been surprised by how many ... people have expressed sympathy for the children or expressed that whatever way this was one was wrong," he said.

Curberson-Alvarado said the community provided $60,000 to affected families which have lost important income providers. They also donated diapers, personal products and food.

Teachers also gave their time to provide information to students affected by the raid.

KC Curberson-Alvarado said she was grateful for the way the community reacted -- even the reaction of government agents who carried out the raid. She said she did not know what took place during the operation, but she said ICE agents permitted her group to act in support of the detainees.

"If this could be cordial, they were cordial," she said.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Marissa Melton reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

armory – n. a place where arms and equipment are kept

attract – v. to pull toward oneself; to cause to be interested in something

rumors – n. a story passed from person to person that has not been proven true

Hispanic – adj. coming from an area where Spanish is spoken, especially Latin America

Latino(s) – adj. describing someone whose family comes from South or Central America or Mexico

uncle – n. the brother of one's mother or father; the husband of a parent's sister or brother

humane – adj. kind to people (or animals)

grateful – adj. expressing or showing thanks

cordial – adj. pleasant or friendly

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