MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — One morning in April, federal immigration agents swept into a meatpacking plant in this northeastern Tennessee manufacturing town, launching one of the biggest workplace raids since President Trump took office with a pledge to crack down on illegal immigration.
Dozens of panicked workers fled in every direction, some wedging themselves between beef carcasses or crouching under bloody butcher tables. About 100 workers, including at least one American citizen, were rounded up — every Latino employee at the plant, it turned out, save a man who had hidden in a freezer.
The raid occurred in a state that is on the raw front lines of the immigration debate. Mr. Trump won 61 percent of the vote in Tennessee, and continues to enjoy wide popularity. The state’s rapidly growing immigrant population, now estimated to total more than 320,000, has become a favorite target of the Republican-controlled State Legislature. In 2017, Tennessee lawmakers passed the nation’s first law requiring stiffer sentences for defendants who are in the country illegally. In April, they passed a law requiring the police to help enforce immigration laws and making it illegal for local governments to adopt so-called sanctuary policies.
But Morristown, a town of 30,000 northeast of Knoxville that was the boyhood home of Davy Crockett, has drawn migrant workers from Latin America since the early 1990s, when they first came to work on the region’s abundant tomato farms. As stepped-up security has made going back and forth across the border more difficult, many of these families have settled into the community, enrolled their kids in school, and joined churches where they have baptized their American-born children.
So the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Southeastern Provision plant outside the city and sent dozens of workers to out-of-state detention centers was the day people in Morristown began to ask questions many hadn’t thought through before — to the federal government, to the police, to their church leaders, to each other.
Donations of food, clothing and toys for families of the workers streamed in at such volume there was a traffic jam to get into the parking lot of a church. Professors at the college extended a speaking invitation to a young man whose brother and uncle were detained in the raid. Schoolteachers cried as they tried to comfort students whose parents were suddenly gone. There was standing room only at a prayer vigil that drew about 1,000 people to a school gym.
Here, based on interviews with dozens of workers and townspeople, and in their own words (some edited for length and clarity), is how it happened.
ANGELA SMITH, 42, A LONGTIME RESIDENT OF THE AREA: My first thought was one of sorrow. Oh my goodness, this is going to hurt so many people in the community. It’s going to hurt their kids, our kids. It’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the entire community because these people are part of Morristown. Immediately, I drive over to the parish center to see what I can do to help. I had to park way at the end because it was so packed. I go in, I said, I’m an attorney, how can I help?
The April 5 operation signaled a return to the high-profile immigration raids that last happened during the presidency of George W. Bush. President Barack Obama’s chief workplace enforcement tactic was to conduct payroll audits and impose fines on businesses found to employ unauthorized workers. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has vowed to quintuple worksite enforcement. Last week, ICE agents arrested 114 employees at two worksites operated by a gardening company in Ohio.
All 97 workers taken into custody in the Tennessee raid now face deportation, though several have been released pending hearings. And much of the town is reeling. Up to 160 American-born children have a parent who could soon be ordered to leave the country; many families are relying on handouts.
NATALY LUNA, 12, WHOSE FATHER WAS DETAINED: My mom had told us one day it could happen, that one day one of them would be taken. The hardest thing is talking about it.
After the raid, immigrant advocates organized a peace march, and Nataly carried a sign bearing the image of her father, a native of Mexico who had been working in the United States without papers for 20 years before he was taken into custody at the meat plant that day. “We Miss You,” the sign read. “We need you by our side. You are the best father.”
Nestled between two mountain ranges and flanked by two large lakes, Morristown is the county seat and industrial hub of Hamblen County, where most of the plant workers’ families reside.
The Latinos who arrived here, especially those who came after the late 1990s, were part of a swelling wave of migrants bypassing traditional gateway states like California and Texas to seek opportunity in the fast-growing South. Word reached their villages that jobs were plentiful.
More recently, as with other places, Tennessee has been struggling with a meth and opioid epidemic. As drug abuse has sidelined many working-age American men and women, local employers have increasingly turned to immigrants.
KATIE CAHILL, A RESEARCHER WHO STUDIES PUBLIC HEALTH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE: Tennessee is facing one of the highest rates of opioid addiction among states. Within this challenged state, you have a county that is doing even worse.
These days, Latinos make up about 11 percent of Hamblen County’s population and account for one of every four students in its public schools. Immigrants toil in meat, poultry and canning plants, as well as at automotive parts, plastics and other factories that dot the area.