Urban Wire ICE worksite raids are back. Here’s what we know about them
Juan Pedroza, Molly M. Scott
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Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a large-scale worksite raid at a meat processing plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, arresting 97 immigrants and grabbing national headlines. This action represents one of the Trump administration’s pushes to broaden immigration enforcement rather than target serious criminal offenders. But this type of enforcement isn’t new.

May 12 marks the 10-year anniversary of a massive raid at another meatpacking plant called Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa. It was the largest, single-site enforcement action conducted by ICE, which arrested and processed 389 workers in the 2,200-person town. In just four days, most of these workers were sentenced to five months in prison and deportation.

In 2010, the Urban Institute documented the effects of the raid in Postville and other immigration enforcement during the Bush administration in the report Facing Our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement. The report reminds us of lessons that can inform the national conversation in this new era of worksite raids. 

Worksite raids offer a look at how ICE actually implements humanitarian guidelines.

Immigration detention can be traumatizing for families. When parents are detained, there is a risk of leaving minor children—often US citizens—unattended, which puts them at significant risk.

At the time of the Postville raid, ICE policies required that officers have a plan at worksites to identify and consider for immediate humanitarian release sole caretakers, people with serious medical conditions, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and caretakers of disabled or seriously ill relatives.

But before the recent raid in Tennessee, the administration signaled its intention to roll back humanitarian release practices. In March 2018, ICE reversed a policy against detaining pregnant women.

Most immigration enforcement actions fly under the radar, making it difficult to ascertain how ICE is implementing these new policies. The Bean Station raid, because of its size and media attention, helps us understand the policies’ implementation. 

Most immigrant workers arrested in Bean Station were transferred to detention centers, but ICE released 32 immigrants as they awaited deportation. The decision to release some immigrants demonstrates that the agency still has some discretion over how it handles humanitarian releases. This is vital to the well-being of immigrant families. The Postville families we interviewed that were granted humanitarian release reported fewer mental health issues than their peers who weren’t released.

Families affected by detention and deportation need more than short-term legal support.

In Postville, news coverage prompted an outpouring of support from schools, churches, nonprofits, and legal aid organizations. But when we revisited a couple of years after the initial arrests, we found that families who were still struggling to contest deportation or were dealing with separation from a household member not only had persistent legal needs, but long-term needs for food, shelter, and care for health issues. Immigration enforcement often removes the main breadwinner of the household and seriously compromises families’ ability to make ends meet.

Local jurisdictions affected by worksite raids should explore how to respond in the immediate aftermath and how to organize long-term material and legal support for families. And ICE can help. Following high-profile worksite raids in 2006 and 2007, ICE alerted social service agencies that could respond to the needs of people affected by large raids.

Organizing legal and material support is just as important in places where smaller immigration enforcement actions are taking place. In our report, we documented that coordinated relief efforts were few and far between in places like Arkansas or Florida where the model for enforcement was individual arrests rather than large worksite actions. But families’ needs were no less acute.

Large-scale enforcement actions create a culture of fear and stress that have significant health impacts.

Immigration enforcement actions spur rumors and fear in the affected community. But media coverage of the Postville raid amplified these fears and spread them throughout Iowa. This caused significant stress for undocumented workers, Latino citizens, and permanent residents.

Public health researchers assessing the effects of this stress in Iowa found evidence that Latino infants born in the nine months after the Postville raid were 24 percent more likely to be born with low birth weight (less than about 5.5 pounds) than infants born before the raid.

States affected by large-scale raids should anticipate broad-based public health challenges and strategize how to support immigrant and affected communities, even as intensive immigration enforcement erodes trust in public health institutions.

Worksite raids can devastate small-town economies.

Postville had a population around 2,000 at the time of the raid. Anecdotally, we heard many local people talk about the collateral damage the raid imposed on the community’s economy. They discussed the ripple effects of the plant’s closure on the local housing market and business climate.  

County business patterns show that the raid’s economic impact extended beyond the 400 people who were arrested. The surrounding county (Allamakee) lost more than 1,300 jobs from 2008 to 2009, and annual payroll decreased about 20 percent (nearly $28 million).

Small towns like Postville struggle to recover from these shocks. The latest data from 2016 show that even eight years after the raid, job numbers had still not recovered.

The Bean Station raid could create similarly devastating economic effects because of the town’s small size and the meatpacking plant’s large role in the local economy.

Worksite raids can uncover abuses that give immigrants a path to legal residency, but hurried processing denies them this chance.

The work environment at Agriprocessors before the raid was toxic and dangerous. Child labor and violations of labor law and basic workplace safety were common. Some argued that the company was guilty of labor trafficking, recruiting immigrants from countries like Guatemala and then lying, pressuring, and threatening workers to stay despite the horrific conditions.

Workers who have been victims or witnesses of these abuses and are willing to assist the government in the investigation of these crimes can qualify for a U visa. But after the Postville raid, hurried processing ended this possibility for many workers, particularly those who did not meet humanitarian guidelines and had their detention and deportation expedited.

Working conditions in the meatpacking plant in Bean Station could differ from Agriprocessors. But in future raids, ICE should screen detainees to determine whether immigrant workers experienced the labor trafficking and workplace violations that could prevent deportation.

Keeping the impact of worksite raids in the broader conversation

Debates about the impact of deportations must grapple with the return of worksite raids. As history shows, raids like the ones carried out in Postville 10 years ago and Bean Station last month can have long-term effects for entire communities.

Research Areas Immigrants and immigration
Tags Immigrant children, families, and communities Immigrants and the economy Workers in low-wage jobs Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy Immigrant access to the safety net
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center