Last January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided dozens of 7-Eleven stores nationwide, arresting 21 workers. In February, ICE detained 100 people across several counties in Southern California and arrested another 232 over the course of a four-day sweep in the Bay Area. These raids attracted national coverage, but relatively little attention has been paid to the aftermath of these mass arrests. How are families and communities affected?
A recent case in rural Tennessee provides the clearest evidence yet that ICE’s raids, supposedly a deterrent to undocumented immigration, are instead causing lasting damage to an entire generation of young Americans. Early on the morning of April 5, federal immigration agents raided the Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, a town of about 3,000 people. Officials arrested 97 Latino workers, put them in white vans, and transported them to a National Guard armory in nearby Morristown, where they were processed. The effect on this small community was felt immediately: The next day, about 550 children missed school, a number that represents more than 20 percent of the county’s Hispanic student population.
The children, some of whom could be native-born citizens, might have missed school because they depended on a parent to drop them off. Or they might have needed to be at home to watch a younger sibling. Or they might simply have been too distraught to go to class after being separated from a parent or relative. The absences are likely to taper off, but research has shown that the detention or deportation of a parent increases a child’s risk of mental-health problems. Students with detained or deported parents can also become disengaged from academic and career goals, which can have lasting effects on their future adjustment and achievement.
In addition, children whose parents are detained face the economic uncertainty that comes with a sudden and dramatic loss of income. One recent study found that families lost, on average, 70 percent of their earnings within six months of a parent’s detention or deportation. This abrupt change is not distributed equally along gender lines. ICE tends to be a bit more lenient with people who are primary caretakers, and that often means women. For example, of the 97 meatpacking-plant workers who were arrested in April, 32 were later released, many of them mothers of young children. The fathers who remained in immigration detention will now be absent from their children’s lives.
The Bean Station ICE raid also affected families with no direct connection to the meatpacking plant. For instance, in the days following the arrests, some 300 immigrant parents set up power-of-attorney documents to grant custody rights over their children to a third party in case they too were detained by federal agents. A climate of such pervasive fear affects the entire town’s safety, because it makes it unlikely that crimes witnessed or suffered by immigrants will ever be reported.
It’s easy to see, then, how a single ICE raid can have cascading consequences for hundreds of young Americans. Perhaps most distressing of all is that what happened in Tennessee has happened before. It is happening now in every part of the United States, and it will keep happening unless we are prepared to approach immigration not as a law-enforcement issue, but as a family issue and a labor issue.
The Southeastern Provision plant first came under investigation when it was discovered that the managers, James and Pamela Brantley, withdrew large amounts of cash from the local bank every week, presumably to pay their employees. In a federal affidavit, the IRS alleges that James Brantley had been evading payroll taxes and filing false tax returns for years. A confidential informant also reported that plant workers faced unsafe labor conditions, including exposure to harsh chemicals without suitable protection.
And yet, while the workers were rounded up and placed in Tennessee’s immigration jails, the plant’s president and general manager was not arrested. It’s entirely possible that Brantley will not face any criminal charges, but will instead have to pay fines. He may even be able to go back to operating his meatpacking business. In this way, the cost of food production in the United States continues to be borne by undocumented workers.
The outcome of the ICE raid on Southeastern Provision exposes the disturbing dynamic between labor and law enforcement. When undocumented workers are free to work, they provide cheap and unprotected labor. When they are detained in immigration jails, they become sources of revenue for private prisons, where they can be forced into unpaid labor. Either way, they make money for others, while they and their families remain vulnerable to being broken up.
Slowly but surely, the immigration crackdown that the Trump administration promised, and that ICE is carrying out, is giving rise to a permanent underclass. I don’t just mean the obvious—the undocumented workers who are being underpaid and exploited, and who must live under constant risk of detention and deportation. I also mean these workers’ children, who are starting out in life with significant disadvantages, including growing up in broken homes and dealing with psychological trauma, loss of income, and educational disruptions.
We have seen what mass incarceration has done to African Americans in the United States: The “tough on crime” approach to minor drug offenses contributed to the breakup of hundreds of thousands of families. We may be witnessing the early signs of a similar disaster with Hispanic Americans. An entire generation is coming of age while their undocumented parents are being detained and deported. These young people are conditional citizens, their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness curtailed through no fault of their own.