Immigration advocates are calling last week’s operation at an East Tennessee meatpacking plant the largest workplace raid since President Trump took office. Ninety-seven workers allegedly without legal status were arrested, and more than half have already been transferred to detention centers out of state.
They were working at Southeastern Provision in Bean Station, a rural town in northeast Tennessee, when authorities suddenly raided the building Thursday. A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirms that the agency worked with Homeland Security, the IRS Criminal Investigation Division and the Tennessee Highway Patrol to carry out the arrests.
An affidavit filed by the IRS says the government had probable cause to believe that the company had committed tax evasion and that the owners were employing undocumented workers. Neither the owner, nor anyone in management, was arrested.
Since the hours after the incident, immigrant rights organizations have been camped out at a church in nearby Morristown. They’re working out of a small building behind St. Patrick Catholic Church, where catechism classes and youth groups normally meet.
The classrooms now have colorful hand-written signs on the doors: food, intake, clothes, kids.
Lawyers working pro bono have been counseling those who were released by the authorities but placed in immigration proceedings. They’re also helping families track down loved ones who have been transferred out of state by ICE.
Though he’s only 16 years old, Raul Romulo has shown up everyday hoping to get some news on his mom. He says all his family worked at the plant. His aunt, uncles and godparents were also detained. But it’s his mom he can’t stop thinking about.
"I love her, and I just hope I get to see her and my family again," he says. "I don’t want to see her behind bars. I just wish she wouldn’t have gone to work that time."
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, then adds, "I just want everything to be normal again."
But not everyone who was detained has family to lobby for them on the outside.
It took dozens of interviews and tips from the detained workers themselves, to finally identify — by name — all 54 people still in ICE custody. Some of them have no relatives in the U.S. The last people to be identified were two brothers, both single, living together in an isolated trailer near the meatpacking plant.
Now that advocates know their names, the next challenge will be finding their families in their home country and letting them know that their loved ones are detained but safe.
Meanwhile, at a press conference over the weekend organized by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, faith leaders denounced the operation.
Alfonso Jorrensano, a member of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, joined Catholic and non-denominational ministers in calling the arrests "an unjust and traumatic separation of families."
"The Word tells us that we have to work together in love and unity in all times," Jorrensano says. "But it is at times like this that we can actually live out what it means to love our neighbor."
A number of churches have already sent food, supplies and volunteers to help the families start to get back on their feet.