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How Immigration Raids Destroy the Lives of Food Workers

Comparing the tactics of Trump’s administration to the Bush era

On February 22, 2017, exactly 55 unauthorized workers went missing from Mississippi restaurants after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) raided the businesses. Two days later, the Jackson Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported “their locations have not been disclosed and their futures are uncertain,” and since, 11 of the 55 have been charged. Just a week before the Mississippi raids, ICE also raided Pennsylvania’s Aroma Buffet & Grill and took four employees into custody, causing the restaurant to close for two weeks due to a lack of staffing. Immigrants working from farm to table are now wondering whether their time in the United States could be coming to an end.

“There is great fear among farmworker communities where as much as 70 percent of farmworkers are undocumented,” says Bruce Goldstein, president of advocacy group Farmworker Justice. “Children are coming home from school in tears asking if their families are going to be broken up.” Deportation is devastating to families, he adds, especially when so many have put down roots and lived in the U.S. for decades. “It sends a chill through the entire community.”

In restaurants, even workers with legal papers are nervous. “Ever since the rumors started that raids are happening again, everyone’s been very cautious, careful, and scared of what could happen,” says Felipe Donnelly, chef and owner of New York’s Comodo and Colonia Verde. “During these raids there’s a sense of loss of any rights you have — that’s the scary part.” What if there’s a raid and a legal worker doesn’t have his papers on him? “You’re going to assume I’m here illegally and take me down anyways,” Donnelly says. “That’s not something you want to feel on top of you constantly.”

Immigration raids have been making headlines across the country for the past month. But as previous instances of immigration enforcement have shown, removing people from their communities has a much larger effect than simple labor shortages or temporary restaurant closures. Here’s a look at how raids have affected the food community in the past and how the industry — including farmers, food manufacturers, and restaurateurs — might be able to prepare for their effects in the future.


Recent immigration raids, which are reported each week, are a return to Bush-era immigration enforcement where workplace raids using militarized ICE agents became common. Though Barack Obama deported 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, more than any other president in history, he favored so-called “paper raids” which audited employers to find out whether they were knowingly hiring undocumented workers. In 2008 there were only 503 I-9 audits; a year later, there were over 8,000.

Not only has President Donald Trump been outspoken in his desire to beat that record, he’s already returned to the flashy practice of using ICE agents to snatch undocumented workers directly from their places of employment. Before the inauguration, Trump said he would deport as many as three million “criminals” from the United States. On February 11, the Washington Post reported that immigration authorities had arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants, marking “the first large-scale enforcement of President Trump’s January 25 order to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally.”

“We're getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody's ever seen before," Trump said just a month after the order.

Though immigration raids occurred for decades before the early 2000s, they changed significantly after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took control of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 2003. The courts had previously ruled that INS agents weren’t allowed to simply stop someone because they looked Latin, couldn’t seize an entire worksite, and had to let people go unless they had a reasonable suspicion they weren’t allowed to be in the United States.

But in January 2004, President George W. Bush began looking into a new kind of immigration enforcement. Under the DHS, the old rules would no longer apply. It did not matter whether an undocumented immigrant had committed a crime or was just trying to work — in either case, it was likely they’d face deportation if and when they were caught. And starting in 2006, these new raids began to rip across the United States.

On December 12, 2006 (a holy day for Catholics of Mexican descent), ICE agents in riot gear carrying assault weapons swarmed six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in different states. Though they had arrest warrants for “less than one percent of the workforce,” by the day’s end, ICE had corralled roughly 13,000 employees and put them in holding cells, wrote Bill O. Hing, now director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. According to Hing’s 2009 University of San Francisco Law Review article, “The overwhelming majority of those held that day were U.S. citizens.”


In 2008, just before Bush left office, ICE raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, a rural town with a population of only slightly more than 2,200. During that single raid, one of the largest in U.S. history, 389 undocumented workers were captured and detained. The residents knew something was amiss right away. “We started hearing helicopters whirring around and our phones started ringing,” Sharon Drahn, editor of the Postville Herald recalls.

Inside Agriprocessors, the first workers to see ICE agents coming shouted, La migra! La migra! to warn the others. Some ran. Others tried to hide. Undocumented immigrant Antonio Escobedo got his wife and huddled in the plant for hours until the ICE agents left. “We still have kids at the school who, if they hear a helicopter, are just dumbstruck,” Drahn says.

“Within weeks, roughly 1,000 Mexican and Guatemalan residents — about a third of the town — vanished,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times Magazine. In such a small town, the impact was devastating. Many of those who remained were stuck in limbo. Children stopped going to school. Parents who returned home to care for their children were unable to work, and walked through town wearing ankle monitors. Immigration lawyers who came to were turned away, since the workers were charged with identity theft. (In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of a social security number in itself could not be called identity theft.)

Many members of the community complained that while their hardworking neighbors were being arrested, managers and CEOs rarely faced consequences for hiring illegal immigrants. A local superintendent, speaking to the Washington Post, compared incarcerating more than 10 percent of the town’s population to “a natural disaster, only this one is manmade.” Mayor Leigh Rekow, who took over when his predecessor resigned after the raid, said there was never a concern about illegal immigrants living in Postville: “They were basically good people and they liked our schools.” Sister Mary McCauley of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which sheltered many families after the raid, was more forceful in her condemnation. “To be there was also to see what happens when the law of the land does not keep up with need of the land.”

Deprived of its labor force, Agriprocessors (which had revitalized the town when it arrived in 1987) became desperate. Conditions at the plant were dismal — even for the meatpacking industry, which is not known for providing cushy jobs. Underage labor was regularly used, pay was low — only $6 or $7 an hour — and accidents happened frequently. Female workers complained of regular sexual harassment.

Speaking of the workers ICE carted away, Drahn says, “Even though their lifestyle was different and they were from a different culture, they were more like us. They were family-oriented — the children, their family, and religion came first.” New workers from Palau and Somalia were brought in but, at least initially, were perceived to not fit in as well with Postville’s small-town atmosphere.

Agriprocessors closed six months later. In addition to labor violations, they’d been cited for poor environmental standards and inhumane handling of animals (a tall order in an industry where chickens have few protections from abuse). The plant was foreclosed, the former CEO arrested for federal financial fraud — and ultimately sentenced to 27 years in prison. Workers found all this out through media reports. Many of the new employees who had moved to Postville for jobs were left wondering what they’d do for work.

Neighboring towns and local churches pitched in to stock up the local food bank and supply other necessities to those who found themselves out of work and unable to find new jobs. Every Wednesday, 150 people could be seen lined up outside the food bank. Real estate values dropped as vacancy rates rose. One landlord who had been making $192,000 a month from his rental units pre-raid could barely scrounge up $16,000 per month a few months later. The town’s revenue dropped so low that Postville applied (unsuccessfully) to have it declared a federal disaster zone, Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported. Businesses closed.

Because of Agriprocessors’ role as one of the biggest suppliers of kosher meat, it was eventually taken over by new management under the name of Agri-Star. Mayor Rekow praises the plant’s business practices. “[The new owner] has worked with the city and things are progressing nicely,” he says with characteristic reserve. According to Rekow, Agri-Star raised their wages and is more efficient than Agriprocessors. Rekow doesn’t believe the raid caused any long-term effects, although Agri-Star has not been able to ramp up to the market share Agriprocessors once commanded, and many Postville businesses that closed never came back. Mayor Rekow wishes people could just look to the future. “We’re continuing onward like business as normal.”

Today many immigrants are worried that what happened in Postville will soon become all too regular. If raids target groups of restaurants in small communities, they could have the same effect as if they target a large scale food producer like Agriprocessors.

Seth Holmes, author of Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, which is about migrant labor in the food industry, says that people are nervous. “There have been a few days when farmworkers I know have not gone to work because they were afraid there was going to be a raid that day.” They didn’t just skip work — many undocumented workers are afraid to leave their homes. “It’s shifted from a feeling that criminals will be deported to everyone being at risk,” Holmes says. After 9/11, George Bush memorably told Americans to “go out and shop.” But undocumented immigrants are worried ICE agents might pick them up outside Walmarts, grocery stores, or other places where low-income immigrants are known to gather.

“Time and again, the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws over the past 20 years should make us wonder about the cost we are willing to pay to enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” wrote Bill O. Hing in the Kansas Law Review. “Not simply in terms of the billions of dollars spent on enforcement, but also the cost in terms of our basic humanity.” In the food industry and in the many rural towns throughout America — whose populations and economies have grown solely thanks to an influx of immigrants — this cost is all too real.

All Immigration Coverage [E]

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Daniela Galarza

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