ICE raid il­lu­mi­nates a frac­tured Amer­ica

Af­ter 159 work­ers are de­tained near Paris, res­i­dents find them­selves on op­po­site sides of the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Fox­hall STAFF WRITER

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.”

Fear, un­cer­tainty

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.”

Marie D. De Jesús / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Photos by Marie D. De Jesús / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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