People living in a small, rural Tennessee town are still trying to navigate the fallout of a major federal immigration raid earlier this month.
Bean Station, in northeast Tennessee, is home to about 3,000 people. The big jobs in town are the meatpacking plants and tomato fields.
Raymunda Lopez and her husband thought they'd found a safe haven when they moved to work here — after years of scraping by as migrant field workers. A job at the local slaughterhouse, Southeastern Provision, meant a steady paycheck.
"I'd cut the meat, take the skin off (the cows) and send it for packaging," Lopez says.
Managers didn't even ask for her last name, she says, much less a social security number. The job was hard and they often worked up to 12 hours a day. Every Friday they were handed $300 cash.
Still, Lopez felt safe. She never thought Immigration and Customs Enforcement would come to a place like Bean Station. She was wrong. On April 5, agents from ICE arrested nearly 100 undocumented workers. The operation upended dozens of families, and sent shock waves of fear through the growing immigrant community.
"A co-worker came in and said 'immigration!' We ran and hid between the cows that are hanging from the ceiling," Lopez says. "But, they came to get us all out."
About a third of the nearly 100 people arrested that day were later released. Some because they had work permits or small children; others, like Lopez, who is diabetic, were asked to report to a judge soon. The remaining 54 are still in custody and have been transferred to immigration facilities out of state.
The following day, the freed workers returned to the plant for their wallets, cell phones, car keys — and a final paycheck.
Lopez says the parking lot reminded her of a graveyard: rows of cars whose owners would never come back for them. They spotted the owner, she says, but were greeted by a receptionist who explained they didn’t know where their belongings were and that they wouldn’t be getting paid.
James Brantley owns the company, Southeastern Provision. He did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. He runs the business with his wife, Pamela and their daughter Kelsey. None of them were arrested despite the IRS's suspicions that they defrauded the federal government of $2.5 million in taxes.
James Brantley owns the company, Southeastern Provision. He did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. He and his family weren’t arrested despite the IRS’s suspicions that they defrauded the federal government of two and a half million dollars in taxes.
Brantley’s name is familiar to the locals. in 2012, he was cited by the Department of Agriculture for using faulty scales and underpaying local ranchers. And just last month local TV news station WATE reported on contaminated well water in nearby farms believed to have originated at the slaughterhouse.
While immigrant advocates say the Bean Station operation is the largest single workplace raid in recent years, there have been several already in 2018. One targeted 7/11 employees and another, in Southern California, affected more than 100 businesses.
The day after the Tennessee raid, the local school district said there were 550 reported absences. One of those was 16-year-old Raul Romulo. He was born in the U.S. and says his entire family was detained at the plant, including his mother. He's terrified about what happens next.
"I don't want to go through being an orphan and living with foster parents," he says. "I just want to be with my whole family again. I want to be with the people I grew up with."
Romulo has found support at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in nearby Morristown. The congregation has donated clothing and food, and organized vigils and fundraisers.
They've also opened their doors to organizations like the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, whose staff descended on the town just hours after the raid. They're working out of a small building behind St. Patrick's, where catechism classes and youth groups normally meet.
The classrooms now have colorful hand-written signs on the doors: food, clothes and intake. While TIRRC canvassed the community to identify everyone who might be affected, lawyers working pro bono then met with them here to offer legal assistance and track down loved ones transferred out of state by ICE.
The church was also the site of a press conference just after the raid, where faith leaders from across Tennessee 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."
But they haven't always embraced immigrants, says Colleen Jacobs, who works with the youth ministry. Some members left, she says, when church leaders expressed support for the undocumented community. But for those that remained, it's been revealing.
"If you take a family who is struggling and we turn it into a movie," she says, "and you told the movie about why these people are here, how their kids are affected, how they live in fear every single day ... If you're in a movie, you're watching and you're rooting for them. Because you see them as human."
As President Trump has threatened even tougher immigration enforcement across the U.S., Jacobs believes that seeing the aftermath firsthand here might change the hearts of many in her conservative community.