ICE raid illuminates a fractured America
After 159 workers are detained near Paris, residents find themselves on opposite sides of the immigration debate
PARIS — When he heard the helicopter, Juan Esquivel was halfway through his 6 a.m. shift at Load Trail, a northeast Texas trailer manufacturer. Maybe someone needed a medical evacuation, he thought.
But it was federal agents, swarming the property near the city of Paris that morning on Aug. 28. They rounded up 159 employees who they believed immigrated here illegally, including Esquivel, who is 39 and has lived in the United States for 23 years.
The event was big news in the area, where voters overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump. Some found themselves grappling with the personal consequences of hard-line immigration policies on their neighbors. Others continued with life as usual, standing strong in their views that deportation is deserved for people who come here illegally.
The aftermath of the raid, which officials said was one of the largest workplace raids in the last decade, continues to reverberate here and in the nearby communities where many of the workers live, illustrating the stark divisions within the country’s immigration policy and Trump’s zero-tolerance enforcement of the law.
The 147 men and 12 women detained are now enmeshed in immigration proceedings that may permanently alter their lives. As they wait, their suffering has been largely private, with some relatives afraid to leave their homes. Criminal charges are expected in the case against the company, founded by an immigrant. At least one person detained is already being deported.
Esquivel came to the United States from Mexico on a visa and never left. He made more money here than he believed he could back home. He returned after each shift to his wife and two daughters in a quaint nearby town called Honey Grove.
“We came to do one thing, and that’s work,” Esquivel said. “We were in Honey Grove. Nothing can go wrong.”
At 10:27 that morning, Esquivel sent a text message in Spanish to his wife: Immigration is here.
She was at home making tostadas, expecting him to return that afternoon.
At 12:20 p.m., he sent another message: They have us.
A family business
Cornelius Thiessen, the founder of Load Trail, moved his family in 1995 from a small town in Mexico to Paris, Texas. The city today is home to 25,000 people, plus an Eiffel Tower replica, topped with a red cowboy hat.
But beneath that whimsy lies a racist past, said 60year-old Brenda Cherry. A horrific public lynching occurred in 1893. A Confederate statue next to the county courthouse is dedicated to “our heroes.” To Cherry, the city remains divided.
“For me at least, Paris is very racist, but there is a denial that it is,” said Cherry, who is black.
Here, Thiessen sought safety for his family, recounted Kevin Hiebert, 35, the chief executive officer of Load Trail. Thiessen’s brother started a company in the rural landscape outside of town, and Thiessen did the same. He immigrated using an investor visa, reserved today for those who invest a minimum of $500,000 in a business.
Thiessen was a Mennonite, a persecuted religious group that sought sanctuary in Mexico, among other places. His business, like his brother’s, makes steel trailers used by landscapers and farmers. Thiessen ran the company until he died in 2015. Load Trail went to his children, who hired Hiebert to take charge.
When he started the job, Hiebert knew Load Trail had gone through an immigration audit in 2014, which the Dallas Morning News reported resulted in a $445,000 fine. Afterward, the company put in place a software system to verify Social Security numbers, attorney Gene Besen said. Load Trail hired consistently since then. By 2018, the company employed roughly 700 people.
“Currently, our efforts are focused on conducting our own investigation to ensure we know all the facts and circumstances that contributed to the events of two weeks ago,” Besen wrote in a statement Thursday. “We expect to cooperate with DOJ and demonstrate that the company has always endeavored to comply with all applicable laws.”
The raid surprised Hiebert. He declined to comment on whether he knew people worked there without proper paperwork. But he wanted to discuss immigration policy and why it seems Americans cannot talk to each other about it.
“We’ve seen outpouring of support from very unlikely people,” Hiebert said. “I think if we can use our experience in any way to positively move the discussion forward, we owe it to the industry. We owe it to the community. We owe it to the good people that we lost in this.”
He added: “As long as we keep talking past each other, we’re not going to change it.”
Besen, the attorney, sat next to him as he spoke.
‘Becoming more real’
Every table but one filled up on a recent Friday morning at McKee’s diner, which generally caters to a working-class crowd, said owner Brent McKee, 61. Every patron but one was white. (The city, according to the U.S. Census, is 67 percent white, 23 percent black and 8 percent Latino.)
Over coffee, waffles and eggs, conversations normally drift from work to football to Trump, McKee said, and the raid came up the day it occurred. On this morning, McKee clapped a man on the shoulder who wore suspenders decorated with the American flag. “Wassup,” he said.
McKee whistled his way over to the U-shaped counter. He was glad Trump demanded President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, he said. He offered his thoughts on the raid: “The law is the law,” McKee said, “and that’s what I believe.”
It’s easy to find others who share McKee’s perspective. Outside an antique store in the town square, Bill Brown, 71, sat on a bar stool, smoked a cigarette, and explained that, if it was so hard to immigrate the right way, people should effect change in their own countries.
“We’ve changed ours repeatedly,” he said.
As with McKee, the raid left his life unchanged.
In a bakery down the street, Daniel Martinez, 25, declared the whole situation messed up. With his hair pulled back in a bun, he said he felt increasingly like he was of the minority opinion. The raid brought out people’s true feelings, not all of them kind.
“The discussion is becoming more real,” Martinez said.
The unforgiving rhetoric echoes that of Trump, who has likened Mexicans to criminals. The president campaigned on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration. He has tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects children brought here illegally by their parents. His policy of separating children from their parents at the border was widely condemned, forcing him to abandon it.
Workplace raids, such as the one in Paris, were another part of the equation. This year, agents have detained illegal workers in Nebraska, Minnesota and Tennessee, plus 7-Eleven stores nationwide. Federal officials say such enforcement helps guard American jobs, protect illegal workers and level competition.
The raid left Load Trail gutted, missing many of the people who worked there longest. The company, with a base wage between $15 and $20 per hour, received new applications afterward, but not enough to fill every position. It has a high turnover rate and can only train people so fast.
There are other large companies in town where people might look for work, too, such as Kimberly-Clark and Campbell’s Soup. In July, the unemployment rate in Lamar County, where Load Trail is located, was 3.7 percent, slightly below the state average of 4.0.
At Load Trail, employees lamented the loss of their colleagues. Tractor operator Jeremy Posey, 44, said some of those detained were his friends, in spite of a language barrier and stereotypes he held when he first started the job.
“I was out there every day with these people,” Posey said. “My views have changed for the better.”
‘They pay their taxes’
Beto Prado, a 48-yearold pastor at a local church, was eating lunch with his 7year-old daughter at school when he got a call about what was happening at Load Trail. He told her he had to go and hurried to the company to see it for himself.
For two hours, Prado watched the raid. The situation hit home: Prado immigrated here illegally. But he was one of nearly 3 million people who gained amnesty under a 1986 law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, granting amnesty to immigrants who arrived before 1982.
On a recent afternoon, Prado sat on a pew in Iglesia Evangelica Filadelfia, where the relief efforts for those affected by the raid were organized. He still hadn’t told his daughter what happened. He didn’t know how he would answer her questions.
“We have a lot of good people here,” he said. “They pay their taxes. They love America.”
In the church, it was quiet. The woman spearheading the relief efforts was back home in Tyler. Volunteers from Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, were back in Dallas and Fort Worth. Others from Cosecha planned their return to New Jersey.
The church usually conducts services twice a week, but in that first week after the raid it opened daily, offering food and financial and legal help. Local Mexican restaurants donated meals. At her father’s store selling Latin American pastries and food, Eloida Muñoz, 27, put out a jar to collect money.
“We know a lot of the families connected,” she said, “so we wanted to help them out.”
As the immigration cases moved along, it was going to be up to Prado, the remote volunteers and a small group of locals to keep the assistance going. Resources were limited. The bulk of the $45,000 donated through GoFundMe was going to the affected families. They turned off some lights in the church at least once to save on the electric bill. They planned to transition to opening the space only twice a week.
Those detained also helped one another. Within a week of the raid, by one organizer’s count, twothirds of those taken by agents that day were released on bond. Some posted $5,000 to get out, others $7,000. One of them, Miguel Oliva, 63, stopped by the church on a recent afternoon to see if he could help.
Oliva bears the scars of a hard life: On his back, where he said gang members stabbed him, prompting him to leave Mexico more than 20 years ago; three fingers on his left hand cut short in a work accident when he arrived in Texas; along his elbow, from when he fell while roofing. He can barely bend an index finger that he hurt while welding.
Now, after the raid, Oliva worried about his 26-yearold son, who has special needs. He doesn’t know whether he will be able to stay with his family in Texas. Neither does Esquivel, who first heard the helicopter and thought someone might be hurt. It was hard for the two men to imagine leaving their children behind.
When Esquivel spoke about the raid, he sat in his living room, where photos of his two daughters covered one wall. One girl listened, curled up on a sofa with her grandfather. Another snuggled in an oversized chair on her mother’s lap.
“This is home for us,” the mother, Mayra, said. “This is home.”
Miguel Oliva, 63, was among those detained by immigration authorities on Aug. 28. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to stay with his family in Texas and worries about his son, who has special needs.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Load Trail, which manufactures trailers in Sumner, near Paris.
Brent Mckee, 61, owner of Mckee’s diner in Paris, greets customers during breakfast. “The law is the law,” he said of the Load Trail raid.
Juan Esquivel, 39, one of the 159 workers detained in the ICE raid, lives in Honey Grove with his wife and two daughters. Esquivel, who overstayed his visa, faces being deported and separated from his family.